Editor's note: Katie Clarey is a couple years into covering HR and continues to educate herself and readers on the building blocks of the field with her series, Back to Basics. If you're new to HR (or just need a little refresher), follow along as she speaks with experts and lays out the basics of federal employment law. She can be reached at [email protected]
June works at a boutique. A few months after starting her job there, she discovered she was pregnant. Her doctor instructed her to avoid lifting more than 25 pounds at a time — a restriction June would have to discuss with her manager, as she regularly helped carry 50-pound boxes from delivery trucks into the boutique.
When June informed her manager of her pregnancy and her doctor’s order, the manager said she wasn’t sure what to do. The boutique scheduled only a few workers at a time, so when deliveries arrived, the job demanded everyone’s help. She told June she’d have an answer for her soon.
What’s the manager’s next move? The federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) offers some clarity.
What is the PDA?
The PDA was passed in 1978 and amended Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VII originally prohibited discrimination on the basis of several protected characteristics, including race, religion and sex. The amendment added pregnancy as another protected category, said Fisher Phillips Attorney of Counsel Lisa McGlynn. "In other words, employers are not allowed to discriminate against employees on the basis of their pregnancy or pregnancy-related conditions."
The PDA prohibits any kind of employment-related discrimination based on pregnancy, McGlynn said. That includes actions related to hiring, firing and promoting. It covers employers with 15 or more employees, and its protections extend to pregnant individuals and those with pregnancy-related conditions, McGlynn said. "That includes people who are trying to get pregnant, people who are pregnant, people who have recently been pregnant," she said. "People who have recently had a baby — the law protects them, too."
The key: Consistent treatment
Employers must treat pregnant employees the same way they would treat anyone else, McGlynn said. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the agency that enforces the PDA and other nondiscrimination laws, states this requirement in no uncertain terms: "If a woman is temporarily unable to perform her job due to a medical condition related to pregnancy or childbirth, the employer or other covered entity must treat her in the same way as it treats any other temporarily disabled employee."
Employers often wonder about the leave they must give to pregnant workers, McGlynn said. "If other laws like the Family and Medical Leave Act don’t apply, the PDA requires you to treat pregnant employees the same as everyone else," she said.
If an employer’s policy granted time off to a worker going to doctor’s appointments for a broken leg, a pregnant worker would be entitled to the same treatment. "If you’re giving them time off to do so, you’d be expected to give the same to pregnant employees," she said. "And if you’re not, you better have a good reason why."
The boutique manager considering June’s request would need to be guided by the store’s past treatment of employees, then. If the store had offered light duty to an employee recovering from a car crash or a surgery, it would need to extend the same accommodation to June.
McGlynn encouraged employers to pay attention to state and local laws. "This is the floor," she said. "There may be a higher ceiling somewhere else."
Avoid benevolent discrimination
Employers can further ensure compliance with the PDA by avoiding benevolent discrimination — a common mistake, McGlynn said. "Employers think their hearts are in the right place," she said. "They don’t want a pregnant employee to work too hard or work too much and take it upon themselves and say 'you can’t do this' when the pregnant employee says herself that she can and she wants to."
A manager or supervisor may think they’re being nice by shielding a pregnant worker from a certain task, but they may be inadvertently violating the PDA, McGlynn said. "They don’t have that ability to take over for the employee and decide on what they think she should be doing," she said. "They need to listen to her and her doctor."