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Employers See Dramatic Rise in Pregnancy Discrimination Claims

The Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) is back in the news as the U.S. Supreme Court considers whether AT&T violated the Act by paying reduced pension benefits based on uncredited pregnancy leave taken before enactment of the PDA in 1978. That upcoming decision may influence whether companies have to change their policies retroactively to comply with current law. While we await the result, it’s worthwhile to review the state of the PDA, which has seen a big jump in claims recently.

HR Hero Line article: Important labor and employment decisions pending before the Supreme Court

You’ve come a long way, baby, but there’s more to go
According to a recent study by the National Partnership for Women & Families(NPWF), women filed 65 percent more pregnancy discrimination complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in 2007 than in 1992. Importantly, the increase was significantly greater than the increased percentage of women in the workforce during the same period. The rise in claims by minority women is even more striking. From 1996 to 2005, claims by minorities increased 76 percent, compared with 25 percent overall.

The Pregnancy Discrimination Act was enacted to amend Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to prohibit discrimination on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, and related medical conditions. Thirty years later, the NPWF study raises two important questions: Why has the increase occurred? And what can we do to reverse the trend?

Womb for improvement
The study finds that no single factor likely accounts for the upward trend in claims. However, cases clearly show that dated negative stereotypes about pregnant women continue to present a barrier to employment. For example, employers may believe that pregnant women won’t have time for their job or that they should place their families first. Another reason for an increase in claims may be because many employers don’t specifically mention pregnancy in their discrimination policies or training sessions.

The NPWF recommends that the EEOC undertake a nationwide effort to educate the public through dissemination of materials, including model discrimination policies for employers. The group also suggests further research regarding the racial and ethnic disparities in claims and targeted education and enforcement in specific communities.

HR Guide to Employment Law: A practical compliance reference manual covering 14 topics, including discrimination

Bottom line
Employers must remember to treat pregnant employees the same as other employees. Special treatment isn’t required. If a pregnant employee is limited in her ability to work, her employer should provide the same reasonable accommodations that it would for a non-pregnant employee. And employers should certainly seek counsel from their employment attorneys if they have questions or intend to take any employment action with regard to a worker who is pregnant.