Pregnancy discrimination claims can result in major liability for employers. Case in point, this week, a San Diego jury awarded a former clerk of Auto Zone over $185 Million in both compensatory and punitive damages for being demoted following advising her supervisor she was pregnant and then being fired for filing a discrimination claim over the demotion. (See story here: Los Angeles Times).
Cases like this one make it imperative for employers to educate their managerial staff on the importance of keeping a discrimination free workplace related to pregnant workers. Under Title VII of the Federal Civil Rights Act, pregnant workers fall within a protected class entitled to rights to leave (time off) for medical issues related to the pregnancy and denial of these benefits or other conduct on the part of the employer that can be deemed discrimination on the basis of pregnancy and/or child birth (such as demotions, terminations or harassment related to the pregnancy) can result in legal liability entitling the worker to reinstatement, backpay, compensatory damages, punitive damages, and attorney’s fees and costs. States like California, go even further in providing protections. For example, the California “Pregnancy Discrimination Act” (PDA), protects both pregnant workers and those needing accommodation with fertility issues as well. California Government Code 12945(b)(1) states that it is unlawful for employers “to refuse to provide reasonable accommodation ” requested by an employee on the advice of her health care provider for “conditions related to pregnancy, childbirth or other related medical conditions.” These mandates apply to any employer in CA that has five or more full time employees and are applicable even if the provisions of Title VII are not. While states vary as to how much protection is afforded to an employee who has or will become pregnant, there are no states in the U.S. that fall below the standards set forth in the Federal Civil Rights Act.
Reasonable accommodation for pregnant workers varies depending upon the stage of the pregnancy, any complications that may arise and other factors. Employers should request and abide by requests for leave and other reasonable requests such as the modification of work duties or transfer to less strenuous or hazardous positions.
While pregnant workers may still be disciplined, demotion, terminated for reasons unrelated to their pregnancy, employers should exercise great caution in this regard. The San Diego case cited above is a great “case in point.” The worker advised her manager that she was pregnant. The manager made several “snide” comments about the pregnancy and the worker was demoted within a short time frame thereafter. The purported reason for the demotion was that the cash register had come up $400 short on one of her shifts. However, the Auto Zone supervisor who investigated the potential “theft” later testified in his deposition that he had ruled out the plaintiff as the suspected thief. After filing a claim of discrimination based upon the demotion, the plaintiff was then fired. This is also a grave mistake on the part of employer as both state and federal laws prohibit “retaliation” against an employee for exercising their legal rights to file a grievance about alleged discrimination in employment.
One aspect of being a “best place to work” is a discrimination free environment. This is especially true for women who are going through a pregnancy. All legal obligations and common sense (and decency) would require that the employer allow this essential right of child birth to go unfettered by the job requirements to all reasonable degree!