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With child, without restrictions: Know your rights as a pregnant woman in the workplace

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If you follow entertainment news at all, you might notice that there is a bit of an obsession with pregnancy and babies. One thing that we do not think about when we see these celebrities with their “baby bumps” is how pregnancy can often affect one’s work, especially if you have a job where you have to be on your feet for several hours out of the day.

Many of the pregnant women in our community have physically demanding jobs that can be heavily impacted by pregnancy. There has been a recent change in the laws regulating how we must treat and accommodate these workers.

On July 14, 2014, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) issued a new guidance manual regarding pregnant workers and how employers must treat them. The guidance expands the responsibilities of employers toward pregnant employees.

It is important to know that if you have a pregnant employee, you may not treat them any differently than any other employee who has similar restrictions. If the pregnant employee has no restrictions that they have told you about, you may not restrict their job responsibilities simply because you are worried about them or the baby.

To further explain the new guidance, it is important to understand what laws govern pregnant employees and the accommodations employers much provide them.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities, unless it would cause an undue hardship. This includes temporary impairments, such as pregnancy-related impairments. EEOC regulations state that employers are required to accommodate pregnancy-related disabilities.

It is important to note the difference between labeling pregnant workers as disabled versus accommodating pregnancy-related disabilities. If you have a pregnant worker who is not asking for an accommodation or has not brought any pregnancy-related issues to you, then you should treat them just as you would any other worker.

In addition to the ADA, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) prohibits discrimination in employment on the basis of pregnancy. The PDA requires employers to treat pregnant workers like other employees who are similar in their ability or inability to work. Under the PDA, a pregnant employee’s ability or inability to work is the only factor the employer may consider.

Firing a pregnant employee, or forcing her to take leave, because of concern for her health or concern for the employer’s potential liability, violates the law. In order to justify terminating or forcing a pregnant employee to take mandatory leave, the employer must show that the leave is necessary because the condition of pregnancy is incompatible with continued employment. Federal regulations apply to employers who have 15 or more employees.

Keep in mind that Washington’s Law Against Discrimination (WLAD) also prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex or gender. Pregnancy is not a disability under Washington law but pregnancy and childbirth are protected categories under the WLAD.

Washington law protects pregnant workers in similar ways to federal law. WLAD applies to employers who have eight or more employees so it will apply to employers that the federal laws do not apply to. Washington common law applies to employers who have fewer than eight employees, so those employees are offered some protections as well.

The new EEOC guidance is too extensive to go into in this article, but it is important for employers to be aware of it and realize that pregnant employees must be treated just as any other employee would be treated.

If they do not have any physical restrictions that they have made the employer aware of, then the employer cannot impose any on them. If they do have physical restrictions, such as restrictions on how much weight they can lift, the employer must treat them as it would any employee who was injured on the job and has a similar restriction, such as someone with a back injury.

Employers should also consider creating policies for family and medical leave as this will eventually come up and it is always better to be prepared when it happens.

Kristin Ferrera is a litigation attorney with the Wenatchee law firm of Jeffers, Danielson, Sonn & Aylward, PS. Her practice areas include complex civil litigation, employment law, federal Indian law, construction litigation and family law.