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Pregnancy: Your rights on the job

Working while pregnant is a difficult thing. Your body is changing, often in unexpected ways, all while you’re facing one of the biggest transitions of your life. Meanwhile, the duties at your job continue unabated. You may not have come to grips with the fact that you can’t quite do everything you used to be able to do before. Maybe you’re having a particularly challenging pregnancy and your doctor has imposed restrictions that actually prevent you from doing some of your job duties. You need this job, however, and you’re worried. What if your employer fires you?

If this is your situation, you’re certainly not alone. Fortunately, there are legal protections in place to prevent employers from discriminating against you just because you’re pregnant. If they do discriminate, you can sue for damages and win.

Pregnancy Discrimination: A Wisconsin Case Study

One woman who found herself in this situation was Shaquena Burton, a caregiver at Silverado Oak Village in Menomonee Falls. Burton gave a doctor’s note to Silverado, which detailed her pregnancy-related medical restrictions that would temporarily impact her ability to do her job. However, instead of accommodating her restrictions, Silverado fired her instead. Days later, the company granted a request to change the job duties of a nonpregnant employee who had similar medical restrictions.

Burton filed a lawsuit with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and alleged that Silverado had fired her because of her pregnancy and her sex. Despite Silverado’s objections, they agreed to settle the case earlier this year. Burton received $80,000 and the judge ordered that Silverado had to revise their non-discrimination policies to align with federal law, as well as report requests like Burton’s periodically to the EEOC for supervision.

Your Employment Rights While Pregnant

No one should have to face discrimination like this, yet thousands of women do. Unfortunately, many don’t know what their rights are, or what accommodation they can legally expect during their pregnancies. Here’s a summary of what employers are legally obligated to do:

  • Light Duty: If other employees are eligible for light duty during temporary medical conditions, pregnant employees should have the same option.
  • Unpaid Leave: For companies with more than 50 people, the Family and Medical Leave Act allows women to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave before or after childbirth. Employers can’t force you to take this leave, however.
  • Holding Your Job: If you decide to take unpaid leave, an employer must allow you to return to the same job you had when you left.
  • Reasonable Accommodation: You may have pregnancy-related medical restrictions that fall under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). If this is the case, employers must provide you with a reasonable accommodation so that you can still do your job, even if you have temporary incapacities. This could include changing your work schedules, giving more frequent breaks, allowing you to work from home, giving additional leave or even purchasing special equipment.
  • Termination: An employer can’t fire you for being pregnant. At every step of the process, pregnant women must have the same protections afforded other employees with similar temporary medical restrictions. If there’s a difference in how you’re treated, that may be discrimination and you may have a case.

Someday, we hopefully won’t live in a world where women are treated differently just because they’ve decided to have children and a career at the same time. Hopefully cases like Shaquena Burton’s will fade from our memory. Hopefully fairness will prevail. Until that time, women everywhere need to be vigilant. Just because an employer says they can take some action against you doesn’t mean that they can.

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