In early October, there was a bit of a kerfuffle over Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren’s oft-repeated assertion that she lost a teaching position in 1971 because she was pregnant. Fox News and other outlets suggested that Warren’s departure was her own choice. Warren stood by her account and called for people to share their experiences with pregnancy discrimination on Twitter, and users responded in droves (full disclosure: I was one of them).
The episode illustrates the fact that discrimination and harassment against childbearing women in the workplace remains an urgent issue for many families. The practice was outlawed in this country with the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978; nevertheless, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which enforces the law, receives thousands of charges of pregnancy discrimination every year.
Just what rights do pregnant and postpartum women have at work? And, just as important, what should you do if you may be facing discrimination due to pregnancy?
As the EEOC notes, the PDA “requires that employers treat women affected by pregnancy or related medical conditions the same as nonpregnant applicants or employees who are similar in their ability or inability to work.”
This means it’s illegal for employers to fire, refuse to hire, demote or take any other adverse action against a woman because of pregnancy or childbirth, or due to associated medical issues such as gestational diabetes. Further, the law requires employers to make alternate tasks available for pregnant women who can’t perform their usual duties; prohibits employers from forcing pregnant women to take leave; and protects workers from pregnancy- and childbirth-related harassment.
Besides this, some medical conditions resulting from pregnancy and childbirth, such as preeclampsia, may be considered disabilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act, which can require employers to provide accommodations such as letting women work remotely, keep a water bottle handy or take extra time off.
Although the PDA and ADA apply to employers with 15 or more employees, the Washington State Law Against Discrimination offers similar protections for most employers with eight or more employees.
If you believe your rights have been violated
If you or a loved one may be experiencing discrimination or harassment related to pregnancy, it’s important to act quickly: In many cases, you must file a charge within 180 days in order to take legal action. You can do so at the EEOC website; by calling the EEOC at 800-669-4000 (TTY: 800-669-6820); or visiting an EEOC office in person — there is an office in downtown Seattle; search here to find other offices. The law bars your employer from retaliating against you for contacting the EEOC or filing a complaint.
In the state of Washington, you can also file a complaint with the Washington State Human Rights Commission. Additionally, complaints regarding accommodations during and after pregnancy — including breaks for pumping breast milk — can also be sent to the state Office of the Attorney General (833-389-2427; firstname.lastname@example.org; or via this form.
If you wind up taking your employer to court, winning your case will mean providing evidence that you were treated differently from similar employees because of your pregnancy. This can be difficult, as an employer who does take adverse action against a pregnant employee may well not admit it. Still, circumstantial evidence can boost your case if it proves that your employer deviated from its usual practices or made some accommodations to another employee without making the same accommodations for you.
To that end, it’s best to document any instance of potential pregnancy discrimination you encounter. Save any relevant emails; make notes of in-person exchanges. The more documentation you have to back up your claim, the more likely you are to win your case.