Finally, Better Protections for Pregnant Workers

6113140848_b8de95f459_zThe Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) updated its pregnancy discrimination guidelines this week for the first time in more than 30 years. The new guidelines mirror the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) and classify discrimination against pregnant employees as a form of sex discrimination.

The EEOC guidelines make it clear that an employer cannot discriminate against a worker because she is pregnant or has recently given birth, and cannot force a pregnant woman to take early leave if she is still  able to work. They also prohibit discrimination against those who have been pregnant in the past, or want to get pregnant in the future.

“Pregnancy is not a justification for excluding women from jobs that they are qualified to perform, and it cannot be a basis for denying employment or treating women less favorably than co-workers similar in their ability or inability to work,” EEOC chair Jacqueline A. Berrien said in a press release this week. “Despite much progress, we continue to see a significant number of charges alleging pregnancy discrimination, and our investigations have revealed the persistence of overt pregnancy discrimination, as well as the emergence of more subtle discriminatory practices.”

The PDA bans employers from firing, refusing to hire, or demoting a woman because she is pregnant or has recently given birth, and requires employers to give pregnant workers and new moms certain accommodations, such as a private space to pump breast milk postpartum. However, some company managers claim that they’re unsure how federal laws apply to their workers. In updating its policies, the EEOC hopes to provide clarity.

“I think it will make a really big difference,” Joan C. Williams, a law professor whose work is cited in the EEOC’s new guidelines, told the Associated Press. “This is also the direction the courts have begun to go in, and that’s why the EEOC said, ‘Yeah, that makes sense.'”

Pregnancy discrimination complaints in the U.S. increased by 71 percent between 1992 and 2011. Many women nationwide, especially those in low-income jobs, are forced to take unpaid leave or leave their jobs altogether during pregnancy. Almost two-thirds of first-time mothers work while pregnant, and 90 percent of those women work into their last two months of pregnancy. The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, a piece of national legislation currently stalled in Congress, would update and strengthen the Pregnancy Discrimination Act to ensure that pregnant women are not denied necessary accommodations at work.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Wunkai licensed under Creative Commons 2.0