EEOC Lawsuit Reminds Employers to Accommodate Pregnant Workers As It Does Other Employees

Reminding employers of their obligation to accommodate pregnant employees in the same manner as non-pregnant employees, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission recently filed a sex discrimination lawsuit against a North Carolina nursing center. The complaint alleges the center violated the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (PDA) when it terminated two nursing assistants because of their pregnancy-related restrictions. In one case, the center placed the nursing assistant on unpaid leave when she asked the center to accommodate a pulling, lifting, and pushing restriction placed on her by her physician, then terminated her employment. The center terminated the second employee for similar reasons. The EEOC alleges the nursing center had the ability to accommodate such restrictions because they accommodated similar restrictions for non-pregnant employees who suffered work injuries.The EEOC is seeking declaratory and compensatory relief, as well as other monetary relief, for the terminated employees.

The PDA prohibits discrimination on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, and related medical conditions. While the Act has no specific provision requiring employers to accommodate pregnant employees, it does state that women affected by “pregnancy, childbirth or other related medical conditions shall be treated the same for all employment-related purposes, including the receipt of benefits for fringe benefit programs, as other persons not so affected but similar in their ability or inability to work.”  42 U.S.C. 2000e(k). In other words, employers must treat pregnancy restrictions the same way it treats any other medical condition. While the Act does not require employers to affirmatively provide maternity leave or other accommodations, it does prohibit employers from treating pregnancy less favorably than other medical conditions. 

Employers must be mindful in accommodating pregnancy-related requests, and should accommodate the request the same way it accommodates requests for non-pregnant employees. Employers should also be mindful of other federal laws that affect treatment of pregnant employees including the American With Disabilities Act and the Family and Medical Leave Act, as well as any applicable state law that may be even more restrictive than the provisions of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act. Employment policies that do not facially discriminate may nonetheless be susceptible to a claim if they impose significant burdens on pregnant employees without a strong justification. The key is not preferential treatment but equal treatment. 

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