- The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has sued Party City, claiming that the retailer illegally fired a pregnant employee in Texas after she requested pregnancy and disability-related medical restrictions (U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Party City Corporation, No. 19-cv-00824 (S.D. Tex. March 7, 2019)).
- According to the complaint, the employee's previous treatment for cervical cancer created pregnancy complications. When she shared news of her pregnancy, the store's general manager advised her "that Party City was unlikely to accommodate any formal request for an accommodation," EEOC alleged. She later submitted a doctor's note requesting a lifting restriction; according to the complaint, a benefits manager responded with a letter that included the following: "When your doctor releases you to return to work and, if you would like to return to work at Party City, you may apply for any open positions for which you are qualified."
- In its lawsuit, EEOC alleged that Party City failed to engage in any discussions to determine if an accommodation for her disability was possible; rather, it pre-emptively fired her because of her disability and because of her pregnancy-related conditions.
Pregnancy alone generally isn't considered a disability protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), but it can give rise to impairments that are protected. In this case, the employee's prior cancer treatment led to a condition that can result in miscarriage and preterm labor, potentially qualifying her for coverage.
Moreover, according to EEOC, "discrimination based on pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions, is a prohibited form of sex discrimination. [The Pregnancy Discrimination Act] requires that employers treat women affected by pregnancy or related medical conditions the same as non-pregnant applicants or employees who are similar in their ability or inability to work."
For example, experts have said this means pregnant workers must be provided with the same access to light duty that other employees receive; pregnant women cannot explicitly be excluded from light duty or be denied it at a disproportionately higher rate than other employees.
Accurate, current job descriptions can help set employers up for success. In this case, the employee's job description required the ability to lift, push, and pull up to 25 pounds, but it did not describe the actual job duties or distinguish between the essential and non-essential duties of the job.
Finally, Party City allegedly failed to engage in the interactive process with the employee to determine whether a reasonable accommodation was necessary or possible. While such a failure isn't a per se violation of federal law, the law favors a informal back-and-forth, and failure to engage can serve as evidence of discrimination.
Notably, this isn't Party City's only run-in with EEOC in recent months. Last year, the commission said that it violated the ADA when it refused to consider a job applicant with a disability, with a manager allegedly saying the company had hired people "like that" before and it had not gone well. That suit is ongoing.