The Legal Protections For Pregnant Employees

In our Des Moines employment law practice, we sometimes encounter employers who either don't know or don't care that a pregnancy, although temporary, leads to significant employee rights. On the one hand, many employers treat pregnant employees quite well, often as a result of traditional decency and practices, rather than because of any legal obligations. But employers who choose not to do that can run afoul of special laws that apply to pregnant employees, such as those governing maternity and pregnancy leave.

Employers also often don't realize that improper treatment of pregnant employees can also violate state and federal discrimination laws. Pregnancy discrimination includes treating a woman unfavorably because of pregnancy, childbirth, or a medical condition related to pregnancy or childbirth. For example, Iowa Code 216.6(2) specifically prohibits employers from refusing to hire or terminating an employee because of that employee's pregnancy. There's also the federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act ("PDA"), which is an amendment to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  It prohibits discrimination based on pregnancy concerning any aspect of employment, including hiring, firing, pay, job assignments, promotions, layoff, training, fringe benefits, such as leave and health insurance, and any other term or condition of employment. And, similar to Iowa Code 216.6(2), the PDA, an employer that allows temporarily disabled employees to take disability leave or leave without pay, must allow an employee who is temporarily disabled due to pregnancy to do the same.

From a general discrimination standpoint, if a medical condition related to pregnancy or childbirth temporarily prevents a woman from performing her job, her employer must treat her the same as it treats any other temporarily disabled employee. The employer may have to provide reasonable accommodation for the pregnant employee, such as leave, different assignments, or light duty assignments if it does that for other temporarily disabled employees who are not pregnant. Additionally,  an employer may not single out pregnancy-related conditions for special procedures to determine an employee's ability to work.

The Americans With Disabilities Act may also be implicated by a pregnancy. Although a pregnancy itself is never considered a disability within the ADA's meaning, complications and medical conditions arising from a pregnancy certainly can be. Particularly with the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act Amendments Act, pregnancy-related medical conditions are receiving increasingly greater protections under federal law. A pregnancy-related disability may in turn entitle the employee to reasonable workplace accommodations, just like any other disability. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's Enforcement Guide for pregnancy issues describes one such possible situation that can be used to guide employers and employees in similar situations: "In Amy's fifth month of pregnancy, she developed high blood pressure, severe headaches, abdominal pain, nausea, and dizziness. Her doctor diagnosed her as having preeclampsia and ordered her to remain on bed rest through the remainder of her pregnancy. This evidence indicates that Amy had a disability within the meaning of the ADA, since she had a physiological disorder that substantially limited her ability to perform major life activities such as standing, sitting, and walking, as well as major bodily functions such as functions of the cardiovascular and circulatory systems. The effects that bed rest may have had on alleviating the symptoms of Amy's preeclampsia may not be considered, since the ADA Amendments Act requires that the determination of whether someone has a disability be made without regard to mitigating measures." 

Harley Erbe