Pregnant Women More at Risk for Employment Discrimination

by Sue Ellen Eisenberg

The national recession that has been in place for, depending on your point of view, anywhere from a few months to a few years has particularly adverse impact the employment rights of pregnant women. And while some segments of the economy are improving, the existence of employment discrimination remains.

According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) the number of charges filed by pregnant women detailing workplace discrimination rose by 56 percent in the last 12 years to nearly 6,200 reported cases in 2009. Monetary benefits have more than tripled over time to $16.8 million. By itself this would be an alarming trend, and it is even more poignant given that the birthrate in the U.S. has been declining over time, accelerated over the past couple of years as the global economy has waned.

Even before the last few years, pregnancy discrimination complaints were among the fastest growing in the employment field. The National Employment Lawyers Association (NELA), an organization that best represents the interests of plaintiffs’ lawyers in employment issues, has also indicated that discrimination against pregnant women is of rising concern.

Pregnant women more at risk for employment discrimination-127611566The statistics are just one issue. The fact is such data is a threshold matter at best. Like in cases of domestic abuse, it is widely believed that the number of workplace discrimination cases charged against an employer represent only a fraction of the actual instances. Why? People have trepidation that reporting their concerns will make them targets for retaliation. An increase in pregnancy discrimination complaints is not simply attributable to more awareness among women of their workplace rights. This is without doubt a troubling trend and one that requires action. Pregnant women can not only continue to complete their job tasks at or above the level of their co-workers, but after they have a child they can continue to become an important part of a workplace.

That goes for both white-collar professionals and blue-collar professionals, both of whom have been impacted by this latest discrimination trend. Whether they return to work after their child is born is a personal decision that they and any immediate family members can and should make together, consistent with the rights under federal and state law such as the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA).

The mere presumption that women with babies will not return to work full-time is an impermissible stereotype. Pregnant women can and do frequently return to work following the birth of their child. And these women should understand their rights and know that pregnancy is never a reason for their dismissal or unfounded poor job performance reviews.

Likewise employers in all industries need to be aware that if discrimination is proven against a pregnant employee, the financial and operational impact could be swift and severe.

The challenges encountered by pregnant women in the workplace may not be as bad as they once were. However progress should never justify complacency. As we celebrate the 32nd anniversary of the passage of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act on October 31, let us remember that our work to protect the rights of pregnant women in the workplace is not yet done.