Pregnancy discrimination in the workplace is real, and it can happen to any pregnant employee, whether she is an executive or an hourly worker. Two recent cases with common fact patterns illustrate the point.
On February 14, 2013, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission announced it had settled a discrimination case against a sports bar in Mississippi. The EEOC alleged that the bar fired a pregnant waitress, Melody McKinley, because of her pregnancy, telling her “The baby is taking its toll on you.” McKinley, who had no prior discipline and had no medical restrictions, was four months pregnant. The case settled for $20,000.
Although Carolyn Hommel was on the other end of the workplace hierarchy, she too lost her job when she got pregnant. On February 1, 2013, Hommel filed a pregnancy discrimination lawsuit against Oprah Winfrey’s OWN Network, where she had worked as a Senior Director. Hommel claims that despite a favorable performance review, and being told she was on track for promotion, when she became pregnant, she was forced to take an unnecessary medical leave. When she returned, she claims she was excluded from meetings and ultimately fired.
Title VII and Ohio anti-discrimination laws prohibit pregnancy discrimination. Employers cannot fire employees or treat them less favorably because they are pregnant. Instead, employers must generally treat pregnant employees the same as employees with temporary disabilities or other medical conditions. As seen in these two cases, pregnancy discrimination takes many different forms. Some common examples of include:
- Refusing to hire a pregnant applicant;
- Forcing a pregnant employee to take unnecessary medical leave or to reveal medical information that the employer is not entitled to have;
- Denying pregnancy leave where leave is given to non-pregnant employees with medical conditions;
- Pressuring a pregnant employee to resign; or
- Denying a pregnant employee group healthcare coverage.
Other laws might provide additional protection for pregnant employees. The FMLA guarantees protected leave related to childbirth and care of newborns. And if the pregnancy has medical complications, Ohio and federal disability discrimination laws may require additional leave be given.
The claims against OWN and in the Mississippi case are not isolated incidents. In 2012 alone, the EEOC received 3,745 charges of pregnancy discrimination. Undoubtedly many more go unreported. As a result, many pregnant employees are harassed or lose their jobs because of stereotypes about pregnancy and new mothers as employees. While many pregnant employees will continue their employment without incident, some will not. Whether an executive or a waitress, no pregnant employee is immune from the prospect of pregnancy discrimination.