Navigating Pregnancy Discrimination

ByAnja Solum, CEPF
Edited byRae Osborn

Updated: November 28, 2023

ByAnja Solum, CEPF
Edited byRae Osborn

Updated: November 28, 2023

Advertising & Editorial Disclosure

Pregnancy discrimination remains a persistent issue despite legal safeguards like the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) of 1978. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), there were 2,273 recorded cases of pregnancy discrimination in 2022 alone. This form of discrimination impacts career growth and poses potential health risks for mothers and babies. Knowing your rights, recognizing the signs and taking key actions can help you respond if you believe you're a victim of pregnancy discrimination.

Statistics on Pregnancy Discrimination in the Workplace

 

Despite its illegality, pregnancy discrimination persists. According to a 2022 survey with a sample size of 2,200 adults:

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20% of mothers reported experiencing workplace discrimination due to pregnancy.

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Nearly 1 in 4 mothers (23%) have considered quitting due to lack of support or fear of discrimination, most notably among those aged 18-34 at 32%.

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Overall, 21% hesitated to announce their pregnancy at work due to fear of discrimination or retaliation.


Understanding Pregnancy Discrimination

Pregnancy discrimination is unfair treatment at work due to pregnancy, childbirth or related medical conditions. This discrimination can range from overt actions like job termination to subtler forms like social exclusion or exclusion from key projects. Such discrimination can happen swiftly, such as firing when the employer learns of the pregnancy.

The impact of pregnancy discrimination extends beyond career setbacks, leading to immediate and long-term financial and health burdens. Loss of income can affect parents' ability to manage the costs of having a baby. A 2020 Baylor University study further linked pregnancy discrimination to increased risks of postpartum depression in mothers and adverse health outcomes for babies.

Prevalence of Pregnancy Discrimination in the Workplace

Despite a decline in reported cases — from 4,029 in 2010 to 2,273 in 2022 — pregnancy discrimination remains a pressing issue, with an average of 3,206 complaints annually over the past 12 years. In 2022, there were 2,104 resolved claims, with the total monetary benefits from these resolutions amounting to $12 million.

While the average settlement amounts for cases that reach litigation vary, some notable examples can provide insight. For instance, Rainbow USA, Inc. had to pay an $11,000 settlement after firing a manager for being pregnant. Another example occurred in February 2020 when Orlando Float, a massage therapy company, settled for $27,000 after claims that it terminated an employee due to her pregnancy.

Trend of complaints (receipts) over the years (2010-2020).

Legal Protections Against Pregnancy Discrimination

Federal and state laws, including Title VII, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act and the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, protect workers against pregnancy discrimination in various employment aspects. Understanding your rights under these laws can help you recognize and address potential discrimination in your workplace.

1
Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA)

The Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) is an amendment to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Employers must treat pregnant employees the same as those temporarily disabled, offering equal opportunities in hiring, promotions and benefits. The PDA covers a range of situations:

  • Current, past or potential pregnancy
  • Medical conditions related to pregnancy or childbirth, including breastfeeding
  • Choices related to abortion or contraception

The law applies to employers with 15 or more employees. If you face discrimination, you have a 180-day window to file a complaint with the EEOC, which may be extended depending on state laws. Federal employees should consult an EEO Counselor within 45 days of experiencing discrimination. For workplaces with fewer than 15 employees, you can consult your regional Department of Labor Women’s Bureau for state-specific protections. Filing a PDA complaint protects against retaliation from your employer.

2
Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (PWFA)

The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (PWFA) is a recent law set to take effect on June 27, 2023. It mandates that covered employers provide "reasonable accommodations" for limitations related to pregnancy, childbirth or associated medical conditions unless it imposes an "undue hardship" on the employer. Designed to enhance the protections offered by the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, the PWFA applies specifically to accommodations. It covers private and public sector employers with at least 15 employees, including Congress, federal agencies, employment agencies and labor organizations.

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Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) doesn't classify pregnancy as a disability. Complications from pregnancy that significantly limit major life activities may qualify as disabilities. Employers must then provide reasonable accommodations on a case-by-case basis. The ADA also requires that pregnancy-related medical records be kept confidential and separate from other employee files.

4
Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA)

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) offers additional protection for pregnant workers and new parents. If you've been with your employer for at least a year, you may be eligible for up to 12 weeks of leave for childbirth or caring for a new child. This applies to private companies with 50 or more employees and all public agencies and schools, regardless of size.

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State Laws

Currently, 47 states, along with Washington, D.C., have enacted laws to protect individuals from pregnancy discrimination in the workplace. Five states — Alabama, Indiana, Nevada, North Carolina and South Dakota — do not offer additional protections beyond federal law, while Georgia and Mississippi extend protections solely to state employees. These laws generally align with the federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act and typically apply to employers with a certain number of employees, although this threshold varies by state.

Some states have expanded protections for pregnant workers; certain exemptions exist, such as religious organizations and private clubs in some states being exempt from these laws. Resources like the Pregnancy Rights Map by Legal Momentum provide detailed information for specific state laws. Beyond federal laws, states often provide additional protections, such as extended parental leave or specific accommodations for pregnancy-related conditions. Consult your state's Department of Labor website to understand your legal rights completely.

Signs and Examples of Pregnancy Discrimination in the Workplace

Pregnancy discrimination can manifest in various workplaces. Remember that you're not obligated to disclose your pregnancy. Employers cannot inquire about it or your plans to have children. Recognizing the signs and understanding your rights are essential to combat this discrimination. We’ve outlined some of the most common below.

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    Refusing to Hire Pregnant Workers

    It's illegal to refuse to hire a candidate solely because they're pregnant as long as they can perform the job. Employers must apply the same hiring criteria to all applicants, regardless of pregnancy status. Under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, if you're pregnant and temporarily unable to perform your job, you're entitled to the same accommodations as any other temporarily disabled employee—alternative assignments, modified tasks, or disability leave.

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    Being Denied a Request for Accoodation

    Legally, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA), reinforced by the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (PWFA), mandates that employers provide reasonable accommodations to pregnant employees. According to a 2014 report by Childbirth Connection, common adjustments include bathroom breaks, schedule changes for prenatal visits, less lifting and more sitting. Despite the clear need for these accommodations, many pregnant workers refrain from requesting them, often due to fear of repercussions or refusal. Denying such requests is considered discrimination.

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    Lowering Expectations and Devaluing Contribution

    In the workplace, pregnancy discrimination can be subtle yet harmful. Employers or coworkers may undervalue your contributions or lower expectations for your performance due to your pregnancy. Harassment from colleagues, such as derogatory comments about your condition, can add emotional stress to the financial burdens pregnant individuals and their families face.

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    Denying Health Insurance and Employee Benefits

    Title VII of the Civil Rights Act mandates that employer-provided health insurance cover pregnancy-related expenses like other medical conditions. Exceptions include abortion costs unless the mother's life is at risk. Employers must extend the same health benefits to spouses, regardless of gender and can't limit pregnancy-related benefits to married employees. Any benefits available during leaves of absence must also be accessible during pregnancy-related leaves.

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    Biased Treatment Due to Race, Ethnicity and Economic Status

    Pregnancy discrimination often intensifies when it intersects with other factors like race, ethnicity or economic status. For example, a 2020 study revealed that Black pregnant women frequently face "gendered racism,"also known as racialized pregnancy stigma. This form of stigma manifests through harmful stereotypes that devalue Black pregnancies and make unfounded assumptions such as attributing low income, single parenthood or multiple children to these women, regardless of their socioeconomic status. Such compounded discrimination can be a significant source of stress for pregnant women.

Standing Up Against Pregnancy Discrimination

Facing pregnancy discrimination requires individual and collective action. If you or a coworker experience such discrimination, the first step is to report it to your company's human resources department. If the issue remains unresolved, consider consulting an employment lawyer. You also have the right to file a charge with the EEOC. These steps can help you defend your rights and foster a fairer workplace.

1
Document Evidence of Discrimination

If you suspect you're facing pregnancy discrimination, start by capturing all relevant evidence, such as emails, text messages and official documents that substantiate your claim. Keep a detailed log of incidents, including dates, times, individuals involved and any witnesses. This detailed record will be invaluable when you file with the EEOC and provides the basis for an official investigation.

2
Report Pregnancy Discrimination

You can start by reporting pregnancy discrimination to your company's HR department, following the guidelines in your employee handbook. If this doesn't resolve the issue, consider escalating to external agencies like the EEOC or your state's labor board. The EEOC offers multiple pathways for resolving your complaint. The process can start by providing mediation to both parties for a quicker settlement. If this fails, the EEOC proceeds with a thorough investigation. Based on the findings, the agency may initiate a conciliation process.

3
Seek Legal Recourse

If discrimination persists despite internal and EEOC efforts, consult an employment lawyer for next steps. Before considering legal action, you must file a complaint with either the EEOC or your state's Fair Employment Practices Agency (FEPA). These agencies can guide you even without legal consultation. Consider an EEO Counselor within 45 days of the incident for additional guidance and possible mediation. For more details, consult your organization's EEO or Civil Rights Office.

4
Find Legal Assistance

If your situation remains unresolved after engaging with the EEOC or your company's HR department, it may be time to seek legal assistance. Start by researching attorneys specializing in employment law, particularly those with experience in pregnancy discrimination cases. Utilize lawyer referral services offered by organizations like the American Bar Association to find qualified legal representation. Online resources such as FindLaw or Avvo can also help search for lawyers by specialization and location. Select a lawyer who understands your circumstances and with whom you feel comfortable. Most lawyers offer free initial consultations, which can be a valuable opportunity to determine if they are the right fit for your case.

5
Get Emotional Support

Coping with discrimination can be emotionally taxing. Lean on a support system of colleagues, friends and family. Joining support groups or professional networks can offer invaluable advice. Prioritize self-care to manage stress and assess your work-life balance to ensure your well-being during pregnancy.

Additional Resources

We've compiled a list of resources where you can learn further resources related to pregnancy and rights to help you prevent yourself from being discriminated against when pregnant:

  • AAUW (American Association of University Women): A non-profit organization dedicated to advancing gender equity for women and girls through research, education and advocacy.
  • American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU): Dedicated to defending and preserving individual rights and liberties guaranteed by the Constitution and laws of the United States.
  • American Pregnancy Association: Promotes reproductive and pregnancy wellness through education, support, advocacy and community awareness.
  • Legal Momentum: Focuses on fighting discrimination in employment and housing against gender-based violence victims, advancing women's legal rights and promoting gender fairness in the justice system.
  • National Employment Lawyers Association: This is a professional organization of attorneys who advocate for the employment rights of individuals.
  • National Partnership for Women & Families: Promotes fairness in the workplace, access to quality health care and policies helping women and men meet work and family demands.
  • National Women's Law Center (NWLC): Advocates for women's rights through litigation and policy initiatives, covering employment, health care and education issues.
  • National Workrights Institute: This member-supported organization focuses on protecting human rights in the workplace. They work to improve workplace conditions through legal advocacy and policy development.
  • Women's Law Project: It is a public-interest legal organization devoted to defending and advancing the rights of women and girls.
  • Workplace Fairness: Provides information, education and assistance to individual workers and their advocates nationwide, promoting public policies advancing employee rights.

About Anja Solum, CEPF


Anja Solum, CEPF headshot

Anja Solum is a certified educator in personal finance and the Data Journalism Manager at MoneyGeek. For over six years, she has produced data analyses and studies for agency and in-house teams across multiple verticals.

Solum holds a bachelor's degree in communication arts from Florida International University. She's passionate about using data to tell compelling, informed stories that empower readers.


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