With more women in the workplace, pregnancy-related issues are an ever-growing reality for most employers. Whether a woman is already pregnant or is actively taking steps to become pregnant, she is protected by numerous federal laws, as well as differing state and local laws – all of which are constantly changing.
In 2014 the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) released new enforcement guidance under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) addressing pregnancy discrimination in the workplace. Although these are guidelines only, they carry considerable weight since courts often defer to the EEOC’s interpretation of the law when deciding cases. As a result, it’s important that employers be aware of their new “obligations.”
Among other things, the EEOC guidelines state that employers must offer light duty to pregnant employees if they make light duty available to non-pregnant employees whose ability or inability to work is similar. That means that if employees who have been injured on the job have the right to work light duty, then light-duty work must also be offered to pregnant employees who are unable to perform their jobs for similar reasons. This issue is expected to be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court during the summer but, until then, it may be subject to varying interpretation.
The definition of pregnancy-related disability has also been expanded such that almost any condition related to a pregnancy could be considered a disability. Specific examples include: pelvic inflammation (may substantially limit ability to walk); pregnancy-related carpal tunnel syndrome (may affect ability to lift or perform manual tasks); disorders of the uterus or cervix (may necessitate certain physical restrictions to enable full-term pregnancy); pregnancy-related sciatica (may limit musculoskeletal functions); gestational diabetes (may limit endocrine functions); and preeclampsia (may affect cardiovascular/circulatory functions).
The new guidance further extends protection to employees who are still in the planning stages of becoming pregnant, including those who are undergoing fertility treatments or who have announced plans of becoming pregnant.
Like most things in this world, the EEOC’s guidelines are constantly changing. Savvy employers recognize that it is difficult to stay abreast of the most current guidelines without the added assistance from legal counsel who focus on employment issues. Before creating any new policies or enforcing existing policies that relate to a pregnant or would-be pregnant employee, employers should consult with counsel to ensure they are in line with the most current laws, guidelines and court decisions.
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