Managing Pregnant Employees

Posted in Law

Managing Pregnant Employees

Employers often have a difficult time understanding how to manage pregnant employees. Although employers are concerned about the temporary loss of an employee, they are unable to replace the mother without a potential lawsuit. At the same time, employers fear that pregnant employees who become injured on the job may blame their employers.

Pregnancy is a difficult issue for businesses to approach correctly. Understanding the basics of pregnancy discrimination law will greatly help an employer avoid lawsuits.

Federal Law 

Like most laws, pregnancy discrimination is divided between the state and federal levels. For instance, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) makes it illegal for employers with 15 or more employees to discriminate on the basis of pregnancy or pregnancy-related disabilities. Employers cannot terminate or punish a woman for being pregnant or for having pregnancy-related issues.

If a future mother is late to work because she spent the morning vomiting, the employer cannot punish her. However, the law only protects disabilities related to pregnancy. If that same employee was constantly late for work prior to pregnancy, pregnancy would not be a defense.

Federal law can also protect the mother’s right to leave for childbirth and her right to care for the new born child. The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) gives eligible employees up to 12 weeks of unpaid medical leave. “Eligible” refers to employees working for government employers or private employers with over 50 employees. The employee must have worked at least 12 months prior to leave and at least 1,250 hours over the course of those months. In return, the mother has the right to return to her original job or an equivalent one.

When a mother can breastfeed an infant at work is a relatively new and untested area of law. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ObamaCare) gives mothers the right to breastfeed at work. If an employee requests it, the employer must give the mother a private place to feed her infant. The “private place” cannot be a bathroom, but it can be any other room in the building provided that co-workers, customers, and other people don’t accidently wander in.

California Law

Although the Constitution prohibits states from contradicting federal law, states can offer greater protection than federal law. California provides pregnant employees with a few extra days of leave. More importantly, California gives pregnant workers the right to ask for an accommodation. An accommodation is a reasonable request by an employee which does not pose an undue burden to the employer. If the employer fails to provide that request, the employer is discriminating against the employee.

Pregnancy accommodations should be tied to the mother’s health and comfort. Some accommodations are very simple. For example, a woman who typically stands at work may request a chair for a few months. Complying with this simple request can prevent a major lawsuit if something goes wrong during the pregnancy. Keep in mind that the employee should make the decision whether she requires an early leave or whether she can continue working with an accommodation.

Peter Clarke

Peter Clarke, JD is the content manager for LegalMatch in South San Francisco.  He can be reached at