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Pregnancy Discrimination Act
Are you aware that there are laws about how you treat your pregnant employees? The Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 protects the rights of pregnant employees in the workplace. Read on to learn more.

What Is the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978?

The Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) is a United States federal law that prohibits discrimination based on pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions in the workplace. It was enacted in 1978 as an amendment to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Under the PDA, employers with 15 or more employees are prohibited from discriminating against employees or job applicants because of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions. This means that employers cannot refuse to hire or promote an employee because they are pregnant, and they cannot fire or demote an employee because of pregnancy or childbirth. Additionally, employers must provide the same benefits and leave policies to pregnant employees as they would to other employees who are temporarily disabled.

History of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act

Prior to the PDA, many employers in the United States discriminated against employees who became pregnant, treating pregnancy as a medical condition that made them unfit for work. Employees were often fired or forced to take unpaid leave when they became pregnant, and many were denied health insurance coverage for pregnancy-related expenses. In response to these discriminatory practices, Congress passed the PDA as an amendment to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The PDA was designed to make it clear that discrimination against pregnant employees was a form of sex discrimination and therefore illegal. The PDA was inspired in part by a 1976 Supreme Court case, General Electric Co. v. Gilbert, in which the Court ruled that an employer's disability benefits plan did not have to cover pregnancy-related expenses because pregnancy was not a disability. This decision was widely criticized as discriminatory, and it helped galvanize support for the PDA. The PDA was introduced in Congress in 1977 and passed with bipartisan support the following year. The law has been interpreted by courts to require employers to provide the same benefits and leave policies to pregnant employees as they would to other temporarily disabled employees.

Employer Responsibilities and Obligations Under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA)

The PDA requires employers to treat pregnant employees fairly and equally and to provide reasonable accommodations to pregnant employees who need them. Employers who fail to comply with the PDA may face legal consequences, including lawsuits and government enforcement actions. Here are a few employer responsibilities.
  • Prevent discrimination. Employers should not discriminate against pregnant employees or job applicants in hiring, promotions, or other employment decisions. They also shouldn’t fire or demote an employee due to pregnancy or childbirth.
  • Promote equal treatment. Employers must treat pregnant employees the same as other employees who are temporarily disabled due to illness or injury. This means that if an employer provides disability leave, sick leave, or other benefits to employees who are temporarily disabled, they must also provide those benefits to pregnant employees who need them.
  • Provide reasonable accommodations. Employers are required to provide reasonable accommodations to pregnant employees who need them. This may include things like modifying work schedules, providing more frequent breaks, or allowing the employee to sit instead of stand. Employers are not required to provide accommodations that would cause undue hardship to their business.
  • Employee notification. Employers must notify all employees of their rights under the PDA. This may include posting notices in the workplace or including information about the PDA in employee handbooks.
  • Prevent retaliation. Employers are prohibited from retaliating against employees who assert their rights under the PDA. This means that employers cannot fire, demote, or otherwise punish employees who complain about pregnancy discrimination or who request accommodations under the PDA.
  • Training. Employers should train their supervisors and managers on the requirements of the PDA and how to prevent discrimination against pregnant employees. These trainings should include scenarios of non-compliance to PDA so that supervisors are aware of the consequences.

How to Address Challenges Associated With the Pregnancy Discrimination Act

While the PDA has been an important step forward in protecting pregnant employees from discrimination, there are still significant legal and ethical challenges that must be addressed to fully realize the law's goals.

Accommodation Requests

One of the biggest legal challenges of the PDA is determining what constitutes reasonable accommodation. Employers may struggle to determine what types of accommodations are reasonable and may also face legal challenges if they deny a request for an accommodation that is later deemed reasonable by a court. Employers can take several steps to address their concerns about reasonable accommodation. Employers should regularly review and update their accommodation policies to ensure that they are compliant with the PDA. They should also document all decisions related to accommodations, including the reasons why a particular accommodation was granted or denied.

Unintended Consequences

The PDA may also have unintended consequences that could be seen as discriminatory. For example, if an employer provides accommodations for pregnant employees but not for employees with other types of medical conditions, it could be seen as discriminatory. Employers can help prevent unintended consequences of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act and ensure that all employees are treated fairly and without discrimination by addressing complaints promptly and educating employees about the PDA. Employers should also strive to treat all employees consistently and without discrimination regardless of their medical condition or pregnancy status. This means providing accommodations to all employees who need them regardless of their medical condition.

Discrimination in Hiring

Employers may be reluctant to hire candidates who are of childbearing age or who may become pregnant in the future due to concerns about the cost of providing accommodations or the potential for absences related to pregnancy. HR professionals should educate hiring managers about what questions are appropriate to ask during interviews. They should also be trained to make hiring decisions based on required qualifications and experience. Hiring managers should focus on job qualifications when making hiring decisions rather than making assumptions about an applicant's ability to perform the job based on their pregnancy status.

Leave Policies

Employers may have policies that restrict the amount of leave employees can take that disproportionately impact pregnant employees. Employers may be unsure how to handle requests for extended leave related to pregnancy or childbirth. Employers should offer flexible leave options, such as telecommuting or part-time work, to pregnant employees who may need to reduce their hours or work from home due to their pregnancy. They should communicate their leave policies clearly to all employees, including pregnant ones. Employees should understand their rights and responsibilities under the policy as well as the process for requesting leave or accommodations. Finally, employers should apply their leave policies consistently to all employees regardless of pregnancy status. This helps avoid claims of discrimination or disparate treatment.

Resources and Tools to Help HR Professionals Comply With the Pregnancy Discrimination Act

  1. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The EEOC is the federal agency responsible for enforcing the PDA. The EEOC website provides a wealth of information about the PDA, including guidance documents, fact sheets, and frequently asked questions. HR professionals can also contact their local EEOC office for assistance.
  2. Department of Labor (DOL). The DOL is another federal agency that provides guidance on the PDA. The DOL website includes information on topics such as pregnancy-related disability leave and the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which provides job-protected leave for eligible employees who need time off for pregnancy-related reasons.
  3. Training and education programs. HR professionals can benefit from attending training and education programs that focus on the PDA and related topics. Many organizations offer in-person and online training programs, including webinars and workshops.
  4. Employee handbooks and policies. HR professionals should review their organization's employee handbooks and policies to ensure that they are in compliance with the PDA. Policies should be clear, consistent, and include information on topics such as accommodations, leave, and discrimination.
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Remone Robinson

Remone Robinson

Remone Robinson is a high-achieving Human Resources professional with extensive experience and success in talent management, strategic communication, and regulatory compliance across several industries. He is a motivated self-starter who draws on strategic planning and change management skills to enhance HR policies and operations. He has an extensive background in performance management, training & development, and diversity, equity, inclusion & belonging. Remone earned a Master of Science (MS) degree in Management and Leadership from Western Governors University. His passion and vision for HR led him to become a SHRM Certified Professional (SHRM-CP) from SHRM and a Certified Professional in Human Resources® (PHR®) from HRCI.
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