Pregnancy Discrimination at Work in America’s Big Businesses

Pregnant Woman in Conference Room

Starting a family shouldn't come with a risk of being fired. But expectant mothers across the country face pregnancy discrimination at work. The illegal trend to hold women back because they have children can strike anywhere, from small companies to America's big businesses.

In this blog post, I will discuss how America’s big businesses deal with employee pregnancies. I will review laws against pregnancy discrimination at work and what your options are if you feel your job is on the line because your family is growing.

4 Federal Laws Protect Against Different Types of Pregnancy Discrimination

A recent New York Times Article, "Pregnancy Discrimination Is Rampant Inside America’s Biggest Companies" tells the stories of several women who faced firing, job stagnation, and other forms of pregnancy discrimination at some of the country's largest employers. The article demonstrates that problem is everywhere: from Walmart to Wall Street.

You can sometimes tell how serious, or at least how complicated, a legal issue is by how many laws apply to it. That is certainly true for pregnancy discrimination. Depending on the circumstances no less than four federal civil rights laws can come into play:

Pregnancy Discrimination Act Specifically Protects Parents-to-Be

The Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 specifically prevents employers from treating a woman unfavorably because of pregnancy, child birth, or related medical conditions. It applies to current employees and applicants, preventing pregnancy discrimination in:

  • Hiring
  • Firing
  • Pay rates
  • Job assignments
  • Promotions
  • Layoffs
  • Training
  • Fringe Benefits
  • Insurance coverage

Women facing discrimination because they are pregnant, have recently had children, or are of an age that the employer expects them to have children, are entitled to file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) or in federal court.

Rachel Mountis spoke to the New York Times about the gender discrimination she faced at Merck, one of the country's largest pharmaceutical companies. Even though company policies "celebrate women['s] hard work and tenacity", the policies did not seem to apply when Mountis became pregnant. A few weeks before her due date date she was downsized, despite receiving promotions and awards for "outstanding leadership." She said:

"'On paper, I was the same professional that I was nine months earlier,' she said. Being pregnant 'was the only thing that was different.'"

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act Prevents Gender Discrimination

Because pregnancy is necessarily a gender-specific problem, discrimination against pregnant mothers often crosses the line into illegal gender discrimination under Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act. If your employer has special rules for women facing pregnancy (or men trying to exercise paternity leave), it may count as illegal gender discrimination.

Merck is also facing a lawsuit by Kelli Smith for paying women less than men, passing them over for promotions, and allowing sexual harassment by male superiors. The pregnancy discrimination she experienced was a part of this larger gender discrimination problem. Smith said a male colleague told her she was "not going anywhere" once she became pregnant in 2010, and her professional career derailed as a result of gender and pregnancy discrimination.

Equal Pay Act Protects Against Wage Discrimination Related to Pregnancy Discrimination

For some women, choosing to become pregnant means their careers, and their pay, will stagnate. New mothers (or fathers) may choose to reduce hours or take time off work to raise their children. These gaps in employment can make it hard to get ahead in competitive industries.

But not all wage differences related to pregnancy are voluntary. A 2014 study by the Center for Economic Studies (CES) showed that the spousal pay gap nearly doubles between the two years before couples' first child and the one year after the child's birth. While men earn an average of 6% more when they become fathers, women earn 4% less. A 2017 review of U.S. Census data shows that at the end of that first year, a child's father earns an average of over $25,000 more than his or her mother. The disparity is based on more than just time off. It is also the result of overt and subtle wage discrimination.

Pregnant women in physically demanding fields often find themselves removed from higher-paying positions out of fear the physical labor "will hurt the baby" even when their obstetricians have given them the okay to keep working. In office settings, pregnant mothers often are often passed over for promotion or bonuses because of assumptions that they are less committed to their jobs or that "baby brain" will affect their work.

Paid time off is a part of a person's compensation. When an employer pays temporarily disabled employees, but not pregnant women, it can sometimes be a form of pregnancy discrimination. A 1976 United States Supreme Court case against General Electric about the right to paid pregnancy leave gave rise to the Pregnancy Discrimination Act.

Americans with Disabilities Act Applies to Temporary Pregnancy-Related Medical Restrictions

The Pregnancy Discrimination Act also echoes parts of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), protecting expectant mothers whose pregnancies come with medical restrictions. If a woman is temporarily medically unable to do her job because of her pregnancy or recovery from child birth, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act says her employer must treat her the same as any other temporarily disabled employee. Under the ADA, that includes granting reasonable accommodations for disabilities as long as it does not create an undue hardship for the business.

Otisha Woolbright worked for Walmart in the deli and bakery in 2013. Part of her job included lifting 50-pound trays of chicken into the store's industrial ovens. This created a medical problem while she was pregnant and her doctor told her she could be at risk of a miscarriage if she continued the work. But Walmart refused to assign her to a different task. Ms. Woolbright told the New York Times that her supervisor said if she couldn't lift the chickens, she could "walk out those doors." After a second medical scare, Ms. Woolbright asked about maternity leave and was fired. It took her a year to find another job.

Pregnancy discrimination can happen in any workplace, from a family-run small business to a corporate giant. But there are a number of federal and state laws that protect expectant mothers. At Eisenberg & Baum, LLP, our experienced gender discrimination attorneys know how to weave those laws together to create a safety net for our clients. We will review your case and help you decide when and how to file a complaint. Contact us today to schedule a free consultation.

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