The Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 amended Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to prohibit sex discrimination on the basis of pregnancy. Specifically, the PDA prohibits employment discrimination “on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions.” 42 U.S.C. § 2000e(k). Pregnancy discrimination therefore involves treating a worker unfavorably because of a pregnancy-related condition in any aspect of employment, including hiring, firing, pay, job assignments, promotions, layoffs, training, fringe benefits (such as leave and health insurance), and any other terms or conditions of employment. The PDA does not require employers to provide medical coverage for elective abortions, except where the mother’s life is endangered or medical complications have arisen from an abortion. As with the rest of Title VII, the PDA does not apply to employers with fewer than 15 employees (although such employers may be subject to similar requirements under state laws).
Congress enacted the Pregnancy Discrimination Act in response to the Supreme Court’s decision in General Electric Company v. Gilbert, 429 U.S. 125 (1976), which interpreted the original version of Title VII as not prohibiting discrimination on the basis of pregnancy. The PDA changed that by clarifying that the terms “because of sex” or “on the basis of sex” in Title VII’s section prohibiting sex discrimination included “because of or on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions[.]” 42 U.S.C. § 2000e(k).The PDA further specified that “women affected by pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions shall be treated the same for all employment-related purposes…as other persons not so affected but similar in their ability or inability to work[.]” Id.
As a result of the PDA, therefore, Title VII prohibits discrimination on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions. This requires employers to treat women who are affected by pregnancy or related conditions the same way as any other employees or applicants who have a similar ability or inability to perform the job at issue.
The PDA (through Title VII) generally protects a female worker from employment discrimination because of pregnancy, childbirth, or any related medical conditions as long as she is able to perform the major functions of her job. For example, as a result of the PDA, an employer is prohibited from declining to hire or promote a pregnant worker because of her condition as long as she can do the job. This means an employer cannot refuse to hire or promote a pregnant woman based on stereotypes about pregnant workers, or because of any biases co-workers or customers may have against pregnant workers. The PDA further prohibits pregnancy discrimination in all other aspects of employment, such as pay, job assignments, layoffs, promotions, training, benefits, firing, or any other terms or conditions of employment.
Under the PDA, pregnant employees who are able to work must be allowed to work. They cannot be held out from work just because they are pregnant, or have recently been pregnant. Nor can they be treated differently, on account of their pregnancy, from other employees with non-pregnancy-related medical conditions. For example, if an employee has to take pregnancy-related leave, her employer generally must hold her job for her for the same length of time that it holds jobs for other employees on sick or temporary disability leave. Similarly, an employer cannot require a pregnant employee able to work to take or remain on leave until giving birth. This means, for example, that if an employee has to miss work because of a pregnancy-related condition, and is later cleared to return to work before giving birth, the employer should allow her to return to work. The PDA also generally ensures that an employer cannot prohibit an employee from returning to work for some arbitrary length of time after giving birth. And just as Title VII prevents employers from denying job opportunities to or taking adverse actions against employees because of their sex, the PDA (through Title VII) prohibits employers from denying job opportunities to or terminating or demoting employees because of their pregnancies, childbirths, or related conditions.
If an employer provides health insurance to employees, the PDA generally requires that the insurance cover expenses incurred for treatment of pregnancy-related conditions on the same basis as expenses for other medical conditions. However, the PDA specifies that employers are not required to provide insurance coverage for expenses arising from abortion, “except where the life of the mother would be endangered if the fetus were carried to term, or except where medical complications have arisen from an abortion[.]” 42 U.S.C. § 2000e(k). This generally means, for example, the PDA could require an employer to provide disability or sick leave for an employee who is recovering from an abortion, just as it would for women recovering from other pregnancy-related conditions.
Related Laws: ADA and FMLA
The protections of the PDA may sometimes overlap with the protections provided by Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act. This is because impairments related to pregnancy or pregnancy-related conditions may qualify as temporary disabilities under the ADA, giving rise to the ADA’s protections and reasonable accommodation requirements. See 42 U.S.C. § 12112. Generally, under both the PDA and the ADA, employees who, due to pregnancy, are temporarily unable to perform their job tasks, should be treated the same as any other employee with temporary disabilities unrelated to pregnancy. Under the ADA, an employer might be required to provide an employee having pregnancy-related impairments with light duty work, modified tasks, alternative assignments, or temporary leave.
Pregnant employees and new parents may also have additional rights under the Family and Medical Leave Act. The FMLA generally applies to eligible employees who have worked for their employer for at least 12 months and incurred at least 1,250 hours of service in the past 12 months. The FMLA allows an eligible employee to take up to 12 weeks of leave to care for a new child. 29 U.S.C § 2612(a)(1)(A). The Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division is a good resource for additional information about FMLA eligibility requirements, rights, and responsibilities.
Because the PDA is part of Title VII, like Title VII, the PDA prohibits retaliation. This means it would be unlawful for an employer to punish an employee for opposing employment practices that allegedly discriminate based on pregnancy, or for filing a discrimination charge, testifying, or participating in an investigation, proceeding, or litigation regarding alleged pregancy discrimination. See 42 U.S.C § 2000e–3.
As with Title VII’s broader rights regarding sex, race, national origin, and religious discrimination, an employee who believes she has been subjected to pregnancy discrimination must file a charge of discrimination with the EEOC in order to later pursue a PDA/Title VII pregnancy discrimination claim in court. Once the EEOC receives the charge, it has the power to investigate the allegations and require the employer to respond and give its side of the story. Title VII’s anti-retaliation provision, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-3, prohibits employers from treating workers or prospective workers unfavorably because they filed or participated in an EEOC charge or investigation.
If the EEOC, based on its investigation, determines the employer engaged in pregnancy-based discrimination, it may try to help the employee and employer resolve the matter by reach an agreement outside of court to remedy the discrimination. If settlement efforts do not succeed, in some circumstances the EEOC may consider filing a lawsuit to address the discrimination. However, due to the EEOC’s large caseload and limited resources, most EEOC charges do not result in lawsuits filed by EEOC. This is true even for charges that have a lot of merit. More commonly, after the EEOC concludes its investigation, it issues a notice giving the employee the right to pursue a lawsuit in court. After receiving the notice of suit rights, the employee has 90 days to bring a legal action in court regarding the discrimination referenced in the charge. Under the PDA, as with the rest of Title VII, federal workers and applicants have similar protections to those given to employees of private organizations and state or local governments. However, federal employees and applicants have a unique EEO complaint process.
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