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The Rights of Pregnant Women in the Workplace

Recent news articles have centered on pregnant women who were fired because their employers said they could no longer handle the job. In filing suit against their former employers, these women cited federal laws covering the rights of pregnant women.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 states that the employer must treat a pregnant woman the same way as any employee with similar limitations. For example, let’s suppose a male employee has suffered a knee injury, and his doctor has placed limitations on the weight he can lift or the length of time he can stand. If you allow that employee to take on alternative duties that don’t require as much lifting or to pause during the workday to rest the knee, then the same accommodations must be offered to pregnant employees who cannot lift the weights they lifted before pregnancy or stand for a long time.

Title VII also gives women protection against discrimination during pregnancy, childbirth, or recovery from a pregnancy-related medical condition. Women who take leave because of a pregnancy or the aftermath accrue vacation time, pay increases, and seniority just like any other temporarily disabled employee. Moreover, you cannot set the length of leave that a woman must take after giving birth. However, the Family and Medical Leave Act gives a new parent (including foster and adoptive parents) the right to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for a child if they meet eligibility requirements and if the company is required to comply with FMLA (50 employees or more).

Another right you may not be aware of is the right of nursing mothers to express milk in the workplace under a provision of the Fair Labor Standards Act. Employers are expected to provide a sheltered area (not a bathroom) and a “reasonable break time for an employee to express breast milk for her nursing child for 1 year after the child’s birth each time such employee has need to express the milk.”

Pregnancy-related benefits must be offered equally to married and unmarried employees. You also cannot discriminate against a job applicant because she is or might become pregnant.

Although some of these rights apply only to employers who have more than 50 employees or who wouldn’t experience an undue hardship by complying, the laws set an important standard of fairness and nondiscrimination. If you are not certain whether the federal laws apply to your business, please contact HR Compliance 101.

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