Pregnant Workers Need Labor Protection

With pregnancy-discrimination claims against U.S. employers at record highs, pregnant workers need additional protection from bias. Pro or con?

Pro: Too Much Discrimination Goes Unchecked

Maternity discrimination lawsuits are at an all-time high, with a 31% increase from 1992 to 2005, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. This alarming statistic indicates that the U.S. needs to put into place more legal protections for working mothers.

Executive women—many of whom are college-educated and having children later in life after moving up within the corporate ranks—have helped drive the increase in discrimination suits.

Although women have made huge strides in the workplace, a substantial pay gap between the sexes still exists, with women earning, on average, 78¢ for every dollar men make, according to 2007 U.S. Census data. While a number of disparate factors contribute to this figure, it doesn’t help that women face challenges before, during, and after taking maternity leave.

Few companies fire women directly after their pregnancy becomes known, but they may snub these workers in more subtle ways—quietly passing over them for promotions to higher-paying positions and doing nothing to narrow the pay gap.

Some may argue that generous maternity-leave options will give women incentive to take advantage of the companies’ resources such as health insurance while encouraging them to delay returning to work. But many companies offer only unpaid leave. And since most households depend on two incomes, few women can afford to stay home for a long period.

Something else to think about: Most developed countries in the world offer some sort of paid maternity leave to their female employees, anywhere from 60% compensation for 14 weeks in Japan to 80% for up to 18 months in Sweden, split between both parents. Why do we place so little value on the contributions parents make to the well-being of our society? Why should U.S. corporate culture remain at odds with family-oriented women?

Also, the underlying question of this debate neglects another issue for working families that deserves more consideration: paternity leave.

Con: Sufficient Protection Is in Place

As a mother of two, I understand the challenges of being a pregnant employee—needing time off for doctor’s appointments, morning sickness, and unexpected bed rest (six weeks for me at the end of my first pregnancy). And I understand the importance of spending time bonding with your baby without worrying you will not have a job to return to.

But I am also a human resources attorney who advises companies regarding compliance with employment laws. I am intimately familiar with the laws that protect pregnant employees before and after a baby is born. They are significant and, in my opinion, sufficient.

The federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 (along with similar, state laws) protects women from discrimination due to pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions. In addition, federal and state laws offer job protection for pregnant employees who take leave—and protection against retaliation upon their return.

Existing laws prohibit employers from treating pregnant employees differently from similarly situated non-pregnant employees. For example, a company can’t deny a pregnant employee’s request for light duty but grant a similar request to an an employee (male or female) following hernia surgery. Stereotyping is also prohibited—for example, assuming that an employee with no history of attendance problems will be undependable during her pregnancy.

In short, the laws are there, and in-house counsel and human resource professionals generally know about them. More frequently, supervisors are the ones who lack the necessary understanding of these laws.

For this reason, companies must make it clear that managers may not treat pregnant employees less favorably or make negative assumptions about their capabilities. Employers must educate managers about pregnancy entitlements and job protection—and they should denounce any derogatory comments, even jokes, about expectant motherhood,

While working parents like me struggle to balance family and work, employers also struggle to balance business needs against employee demands. There are sufficient federal and state laws to protect working parents and expectant moms. They key is to educate those responsible for compliance.

Opinions and conclusions expressed in the BusinessWeek Debate Room do not necessarily reflect the views of BusinessWeek, BusinessWeek.com, or The McGraw-Hill Companies.

Reader Comments

Strategery

The existing protections are only civil. Many of those who are illegally fired or passed for promotions do not have the financial resources to sue an employer for damages. They will simply collect unemployment, if they can, and look for another job.

nandlal kanjibhai pancholi

Maternity discrimination ultimately boils down to gender bias, and hence such practices should be discouraged. Pregnancy is a natural event in the life of a female worker, and therefore pregnancy leave is her birthright. The employers engaging in discriminatory practice and gender bias in promotions and recruitment must be brought under the provisions of law and punished.

Charles

It only "boils down to gender bias," because women are the only ones who can give birth. Granted, outright discrimination because of pregnancy (as opposed to overlooking other similarly impairing conditions) is protected against because it is wrong, but all of these other demands for absolute parity are economically unreasonable.

Moms take time off for what is effectively a personal issue (pregnancy is a personal issue, regardless of the circumstances), and then expect equal pay, equal status, and equal rights, all for less work, less productivity, and more flexibility? If the mom can still do just as much work and maintain productivity, then yes, she should be protected from unjustifiable negative actions (i.e., discrimination) taken against her by her employer, to include being passed over for promotion or being treated less favorably.

But it is unreasonable for her to expect the same pay and same status as before she went on maternity leave if she cannot maintain her productivity and workload. If a man were to be similarly affected (not by pregnancy, of course but, say, some injury or surgery or whatever) and his productivity suffered, there would be very few protests or eyebrows raised in the event that he was passed over for promotion because of this reduction in productivity, or if he was even laid off because of it.

Bhishma V

Not only labor protection is required to stave off the most regressive practice of 21st century--namely, gender bias at work. Strict legal requirements should ensure that American and European multinational corporations implement protection in in all their subsidiaries in all Third World countries, too. This way, western governments may provide a good service to humanity by making the world a better, nicer, and more human one to live in.

nandlal kanjibhai pancholi

It is erroneous to equate women with less productivity. Right from school, girls perform better than boys. At the workplace also, women have proved themselves better than men. Not only are women better at productivity and work ethics but they also have shown better compliance to rules. A company with a large number of female employees has fewer industrial disputes and almost no litigation against the management, whereas male employees create more industrial disputes and more litigation against their employers. In some countries, employers avoid recruiting male candidates because of their querulous nature and confrontational attitude. In some schools, male teachers are considered black sheep, and schools state right in their ads that only female candidates need apply.

TomV

I've never been aware of, heard of, or seen any discrimination against pregnant women. I also want to take exception with two arguments in the Pro column. First exception is the "they may snub these workers in more subtle ways" argument. Okay, how do you propose to prove these "subtle ways"? Will this become the next equal opportunity issue, where you'd better have several ethnic minorities plus a mother or two on the payroll? What happens if two candidates are interviewed, one a pregnant female, the other a male, and the male is the superior candidate? Hire the female or risk a lawsuit? Just what this country needs, more lawsuits, right? Second is the "Most developed countries in the world offer some sort of paid maternity leave to their female employees" argument. What the author of the Pro side does not state is these same countries are currently experiencing negative population growth trends. Instead of Sweden, the author could have used any number of European or Asian countries as an example. Don't believe me; look at http://www.foreignpolicy.com/story/cms.php?story_id=3981 as one source where governments are trying to make their citizens have more kids because of demographic concerns, not workplace discrimination reasons as the author suggests.

Lee

I have personally experienced this discrimination. When the company that I worked for found out that I was pregnant, I needed a doctor's release before I was allowed to return to work. The only restrictions my doctor stated was not working more than 50 hours a week and to be able to sit down during off-peak times. No other employee was required to have a doctor's release to work. After my daughter was born, I had to extend my maternity leave from four weeks to twelve weeks (I had to have an emergency caesarian section), which my employer was unhappy about. I returned to a demotion and pay cut, which I reported to the Labor Department. I then was returned to my former rate of pay, and then fired within three weeks. I was initially denied unemployment benefits, which I appealed and won. I was then informed that I could not pursue a discrimination claim, because the time limit (60 days) was already past. I am positive I'm not the only woman who's been discriminated against solely because of being pregnant.

KH

I'm pretty sure there isn't ever going to be a fair play with this situation. Discrimination is just bound to happen: pregnant woman vs. nonpregnant woman, pregnant woman vs. a male Obviously, in most cases, pregnant women will lose. Those who deny and argue because "she's' less productive so it's only fair," that is just bull. I guess the best solution is that women should never be pregnant in order to keep their career and "equality," so then the "humans will gradually become extinct" will finally begin.

brooklyn

I was also discriminated against for being pregnant. When I told my boss, she constantly asked me how long I was taking off. When I put in for my maternity leave of three months, I was told it had to be approved. Then a month before I gave birth I was told that my position was being phased out because of funding, and I was fired.

Eaon Hendrickson

My wife was recently fired from her job on the same day she had scheduled a meeting to tell her employer about being pregnant. She was literally fired right after she told her employer. I have a high suspicion that they knew before my wife met with her employer that day. She had gone home early the day before due to pregnancy related illness and explained this to the MA in charge of scheduling. It seems to be quite coincidental that being fired due to "not meeting expectations" would happen on the same day.

suzy

I too was discriminated against because I was pregnant. My coworker was pregnant, and then I found out that I was too! So I turned in my drs. note for some restrictions, because I worked for a vet. I worked with animals. My coworker got special treatment and I had to do her work, even though I had a note not to. So my boss said, you can't work here, you have to leave because you are pregnant so I was forced out before I turned in my dr's restrictions. The kicker in this was a year before I talked to my boss about wanting to start a family and he told me if you do that you can't work here, so I thought he was kidding, but he wasn't. So after I quit I contacted the labor law in my state in Mich. And they said my boss had every right to fire me, because the law does not protect women that work in places with under 15 employees. So I say to this, I think the law needs to be redone to protect everyone, even if you work for a company that employs under 15 people!. The laws protect men more than women.

Troubled

It seems that pregnancy is being treated more as a problem than as something wonderful. I heard a story from a very reliable friend that a senior manager at Babies R Us was fired just before she was to start her materinity leave this spring. You just have to wonder what is going on in company's heads. Whatever this person did it could not have been bad enought to warrant getting rid of her at a very stressful time of life. Maybe the negative perception has more to do with grey haired men in managment than anyone else.

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