Discrimination on the basis of pregnancy is expressly prohibited by federal law. The Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 serves as an amendment to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 further expanded the protections provided by the earlier laws. Provided here is a summary of the protections that are granted to pregnant women.
Employers are not permitted to discriminate against pregnant women in the hiring process, provided that the woman is able, with or without accommodation, to perform the essential functions of the job. Prejudices on the part of the employer or concerns over possible prejudices of customers or employees are not a valid reason for discrimination.
Current law does not require employers to provide any form of health coverage to their employees. If insurance is provided, however, then it must be available to all employees within a particular job classification. For example, an employer may provide health benefits to full-time employees, but not part-time employees. If the pregnant woman falls into the covered job class, then she must be provided with equal health coverage.
Pregnancy must be treated as any other medical condition. Equal benefits must be paid according to whichever payment method (fixed-price or percentage of charges; reimbursement or direct billing) is used for any other medical treatment. Abortion need not be covered, although complications that endanger the woman’s life must be treated as a medical emergency.
Pregnancy leave may be covered in two different ways. According to Title VII and the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, maternity leave and medical leave required by pregnancy or childbirth must be treated in exactly the same manner as regular medical leave. The same policies must be applied, including continuation of health care coverage, documentation and the rights to return to the same job position, as are applied to any medical or personal leave.
Additionally, if the employer is subject to the Family and Medical Leave Act, then maternity leave must be granted under the terms of that Act regardless of how other leave situations are treated. The Family and Medical Leave Act governs private employers who employ at least 50 employees within a 75 mile radius, as well as all public sector employers. Employees are eligible for leave benefits if they have worked at least 1250 hours during the past year.
Under the terms of the FMLA, employees are entitled to 12 weeks of unpaid leave within a 12 month period for, among other conditions, the birth of a child, as well as any medical condition. Employees may use all 12 weeks concurrently or may divide it into several smaller leave periods. Both men and women are entitled to leave under the Act. The employee must be reinstated into his or her old position or one that is substantially similar.
An employer may not force a pregnant woman to take paid or unpaid leave. If she takes leave due to a pregnancy-related medical condition, then later recovers, she is entitled to return to work. The employer may not require her to remain on leave until after the birth.
The Bottom Line
Federal law is quite clear on the rights of pregnant women in the workforce. Pregnancy is a protected condition that may be not used as ground for discrimination. Additionally, pregnancy is to be treated as any other medical condition for purposes of leave and the payment of health care and other benefits.