On July 14th of this year, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (the “EEOC”) issued new enforcement guidance on pregnancy discrimination in the workplace. Among other things, the guidance addresses when an employers’ actions constitute unlawful discrimination on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth or related medical conditions; obligation of employers under the Pregnant Discrimination Act (“PDA”) to provide pregnant workers equal access to benefits of employment; and how Title I of the American with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) was amended to broaden the definition of disability to include individuals with pregnancy-related impairments. Both the PDA and the ADA apply to private and state and local government employers.
The EEOC is part of the federal anti-discrimination legal landscape. California has additional laws that provide equal (and in many cases) and stronger protection. But the CA laws are modeled off of the federal laws so it is important that CA lawyers are aware of any EEOC changes.
The PDA states that discrimination based on pregnancy, childbirth or related medical conditions is a prohibited form of sex discrimination, and the PDA requires that employers treat women who are pregnant or affected from related medical conditions the same way the employers would treat non-pregnant applicants or employees. The EEOC’s July 14th guidance regarding pregnant employees clarifies this as the guidance focuses on employers’ obligation to provide pregnant employees equal access to benefits such as leave, light duty (or work with accommodations) and health benefits.
In the past, employers and the EEOC have struggled with applying the appropriate forms of leave of and treatment for pregnant employees. The new guidance addresses these problems. In the guidance, the EEOC states that pregnant employees and pregnant job applicants are not excluded from the ADA’s protection, and thanks to ADA amendments in 2008, changes to the definition of disability make it much easier for pregnant employees to show they have disabilities and thus are protected under the ADA. The guidance also states that pregnancy-related impairments are ADA covered disabilities if they substantially limit one or more major life activities (for example, walking, standing, lifting, etc.), as well as substantially limits major bodily functions.
Ultimately, the EEOC’s guidance on pregnant employees entitles employees with pregnancy related impairments to ADA accommodations even if the impairments are temporary. In addition, through this guidance, the EEOC take on the position that the PDA entitles pregnant employees to reasonable accommodations in the workplace. This is a huge win for pregnant employees in the workplace.
However, it should be noted that the EEOC’s guidances are not binding law and do not have the strength of the laws and regulations. But, as seen in the use of them by the courts, the guidances form the foundation for the EEOC’s enforcement efforts and basically act as persuasive authorities to the courts. Employers should strongly consider taking steps to safeguard themselves in light of this newly released guidance. The last thing an employer should want is to oppose a pregnant employer in a jury trial.