Pregnancy should never be a barrier to professional success or job security. Unfortunately, employees who are pregnant or are suspected to become pregnant do experience routine discrimination at work. According to a survey conducted in 2022, nearly 1 in 5 mothers report having experienced some form of pregnancy related discrimination or harassment by their employers.

Pregnancy discrimination can take many forms and employers use varying false justifications to shield their discriminatory practices. In order to combat pregnancy discrimination, it is important that job applicants and employees understand their pregnancy-related rights, know how to recognize warning signs of problematic employer behavior, and are aware of steps to take if discriminatory action occurs.

Legal Protections for Pregnant Workers

Federal and state employment law make it unlawful for employers to discriminate against or harass employees on the basis of pregnancy status. The Civil Rights Act (CRA), the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA), the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) provide employees navigating pregnancy with a great deal of protection. Along with being legally protected from pregnancy-related workplace discrimination or harassment, workers have the right to work schedule adjustments, accommodations, shifts in job duties and work schedules, and medically necessary leave.

Federal and State law protect employees who are pregnant, may become pregnant, or whose loved one is pregnant or may become pregnant. Employers may not, for example, demote or terminate an employee who is considering becoming pregnant. Legal protections extend to job candidates as well as employees; for example, an employer may not choose not to hire someone on the basis of their pregnancy status.

To learn more about the specific state and federal laws that pertain to pregnant employees, please visit Legal Protections for Pregnant Workers.

Warning Signs off Pregnancy Discrimination

Pregnancy discrimination can manifest in various ways and is not always overt. Pregnancy discrimination often builds over time, and can begin with recognizable warning signs. It is crucial to remain vigilant regarding any inappropriate conduct, regardless of how minor it may seem, as these initial signs of discrimination often hint at more severe actions to come. Below we review common red flags for impending pregnancy discrimination.

  • Signs of discrimination can begin during the hiring process. During job interviews, inquiries about an applicants personal life are typical as employers seek to gauge compatibility. However, interrogations regarding pregnancy status, plans for children, or existing parental responsibilities, can be a signal of an employer’s discriminatory intent. If you are a male applicant, be wary of queries about your spouse’s pregnancy status or family plans. Such probing could be indicative of an employer’s reluctance to accommodate maternity or paternity leave, and could potentially lead to biased hiring decisions.
  • During employment, persistent remarks or questions about your future family planning may be indicative of employer bias. Often disguised as casual banter to maintain plausible deniability, such remarks or questions from superiors concerning your reproductive intentions may signal trouble.
  • If you or your partner is pregnant, continuous inquiries about you or your family’s well-being may signal employer bias. Feigned concern from superiors as a pregnancy progresses, particularly regarding an employee’s ability to fulfill job duties, might indicate efforts to build a case for dismissal before a maternity leave. Similarly, comments or jests regarding your ability to cope with workload due to your pregnancy status are a red flag. If your supervisor or manager makes jokes or comments about your work performance being affected by pregnancy, it could foreshadow attempts to justify dismissing you on grounds of incompetence. Along with being a sign of pregnancy discrimination, pervasive commentary or jokes about pregnancy may create a hostile work environment and may be considered pregnancy harassment.
  • Reluctance on behalf of your employer to accommodate requests for reasonable accommodations may be cause for concern. As a pregnant employee, or if you are dealing with pregnancy related medical conditions, you are entitled to request reasonable accommodations in aspects of employment including your workspace and your tasks. Any resistance from your employer to find a mutually agreeable solution could signal employer bias.
  • Abrupt, unrequested reduction in your job responsibilities may be red flag. If you do not request accommodation but your employer suddenly reduces your workload, puts you on light duty, or changes the conditions of your employment without your solicitation, make note. While they may claim the changes are to facilitate your working during pregnancy, their decisions could be a veiled attempt to construct a narrative of decreased performance, potentially leading to discriminatory actions.

Alone, the above named behaviors do not necessarily constitute discrimination. However, they may be signs of employer bias and may help you recognize if, and when, you have suffered pregnancy discrimination. They may also be helpful pieces of evidence if matters escalate and you decide to pursue a pregnancy discrimination claim.

Recognizing Pregnancy Discrimination

The warning signs discussed above can escalate to more severe acts of pregnancy discrimination that pose a significant threat to your employment. It’s crucial to be able to identify when discrimination occurs so that you can take immediate steps to address it legally. Generally, pregnancy discrimination occurs when an employer takes an adverse employment action against an employee because of their pregnancy-status. Below we review common examples of pregnancy discrimination.

  • Pregnancy discrimination often culminates in a wrongful termination. If you or your spouse is pregnant or planning to become pregnant and you were terminated without a clear or justifiable cause, terminated in a manner inconsistent with company policy, or laid off with suspicious timing, you may be a victim of pregnancy discrimination. If your employer struggles to provide coherent reasons for your termination, pregnancy discrimination could be a factor. Similarly, if your termination deviations from company protocols, such as termination without prior warnings or performance reviews, pregnancy discrimination at play. Timing can be an important factor in determining discriminatory motives; if your termination comes shortly before maternity or paternity leave, or shortly after you announce a pregnancy, it may well be a discriminatory wrongful termination.
  • Denials of promotion while pregnant maybe an adverse action constituting pregnancy discrimination. It is common for pregnant individuals or those with young families to be denied promotions, even when they’re the most qualified candidates. Proving this type of discrimination can be challenging, but if your performance history and seniority indicate a strong record, you may have grounds for a case.
  • Demotion, a reduction of work hours, or repeated assignment of undesirable work duties may be a form of pregnancy discrimination. Such tactics may be veiled aim at pressuring you to resign before taking maternity leave, paternity leave, or becoming a parent.
  • If your employer outright refuses to provide reasonable accommodations for you during and after your pregnancy, they may be actively engaging in pregnancy discrimination. Employers are required by law to provide accommodations for pregnant employees, for individuals experiencing pregnancy related conditions, and for new parents, unless doing so would be an undue burden. If you experience a medical condition arising from your pregnancy, you are legally entitled to request an accommodation. Reasonable accommodations may include modified light duties, adjusted work schedules and break time, temporary transfer, permitted time off for health care provider visits, and unpaid leave, among other potential accommodations that do not cause undue hardship to the employer. Refusal to provide accommodations or engage in the interactive process is discriminatory behavior.

How to Respond to Pregnancy Discrimination

When you have been discriminated against due to your or a loved one’s pregnancy, you have limited time to act. If you believe you may have been treated inappropriately as a result of your pregnancy, you should immediately contact legal representation. You may be able to bring a lawsuit and may be entitled to damages in the form of front and back pay, emotional distress damages, punitive damages, and attorney’s fees. Take the following steps to support your case:

Save Evidence: Record all relevant events or interactions in writing. Save related notes, performance reviews, non-privileged documents, and the employee handbook. You may request your personnel file to review any documents you have signed and to ensure that your file is complete.

Find an Attorney: Reach out to an employment lawyer. Avloni Law is a law firm dedicated to fighting against pregnancy discrimination. Navruz Avloni is an experienced discrimination attorney and has successfully represented clients in discrimination cases. Click here to schedule a consultation with Navruz Avloni.