In our continuing series on pregnancy and the workplace, we highlight new guidelines issued by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) relative to the rights of pregnant women at work. In a close 3-2 partisan vote of Commissioners earlier this week, the EEOC issued new enforcement guidance clarifying its interpretation of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) with an analysis that parallels protections afforded under the Americans with Disabilities Act and its amendments (ADA / ADAAA). At its core, the PDA prohibits discrimination based on pregnancy and establishes workplace protections for pregnant workers. After several decades of relative silence on the issue, the Agency indicated that pregnant employees are protected against discrimination for their current pregnancies, including medical conditions, as well as past and potential pregnancies. Pregnant workers must be accommodated with reasonable workplace adjustments – whether their pregnancies rise to the level of a disabling condition or not. Indeed, the guidance makes clear that even a healthy pregnancy entitles workers to protections, including work place adjustments (e.g. leave to see doctors, maternity leave, etc.) also known as reasonable accommodations, and prohibits adverse action, including termination, due to pregnancy. Lactation, an issue we recently explored in our Blog “Got Milk Break? Working Mothers Breast Milk Pumping Rights Expand,” and by extension expressing breast milk, is now explicitly considered a medical condition giving rise to protections on the job.
It should come as little surprise that the EEOC’s guidance, which is not black letter ‘law’, will not be the last word on this issue. Indeed, the US Supreme Court has agreed to decide the case of Young v. United Parcel Service (UPS) based on an appeal by Ms. Young from the Fourth Circuit, which found UPS’s policy pregnancy-neutral and therefore not applied so as to deprive pregnant employees of any rights. Ms. Young was a pregnant UPS delivery driver who was denied light duty work and fired by UPS. Ms. Young claims that the company’s conduct violated the PDA when UPS required her to go on unpaid maternity leave, rather than offer her a position that was less strenuous as her doctors had recommended. While the Pregnancy Discrimination Act does not expressly mandate that employers make accommodations for pregnant women, the EEOC and Obama Administration, through their newly published guidance, are pressing for such an interpretation as a natural extension of their mandate to enforce protections based on biases associated with both gender and disability.
Here are some other highlights of the EEOC guidelines:
- Pregnancy-related conditions can constitute disabilities under the amended Americans with Disabilities Act, thus triggering an employer’s obligation to provide reasonable accommodations.
- Lactation is a pregnancy-related medical condition.
- Employers may not refuse light duty to pregnant workers on the ground that their light duty policies are limited to workers injured on the job.
- Parental leave for newborns or newly adopted child care and bonding has to be provided to fathers as well as mothers.
The EEOC has provided additional information in a Q&A and a fact sheet. It remains to be seen whether the US Supreme Court affirms this expansive Administrative interpretation of the PDA as it relates to our most vulnerable workers. As always, feel free to contact us for recent developments in this area of employment law……and stay tuned for future developments!