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Pregnant at work: How you're protected

Discriminating against a pregnant woman at work has been illegal since 1978, but what is and is not allowed hasn't always been clear. To help end the confusion, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) recently issued new guidelines to help businesses understand the law. While these are guidelines and not statutory law, employers would be wise to follow them. The complete guidelines give detailed instructions, but here are some of the key points.

1. You don't have to officially disclose your pregnancy to be protected. Lack of knowledge is a defense against discrimination (after all, they can't discriminate against you for being pregnant when they don't know), but if others in the office know, or you look obviously pregnant, that will be taken into consideration. Still, the best guarantee of protection is to let your boss know you're pregnant before the rumors get there first.

2. Stereotyping prohibited. If an employer terminates you, refuses to hire you or treats you poorly because the employer assumes that you'll leave after the baby comes or need excessive time off, that's not allowed.

3. Pregnancy discrimination protection doesn't end when the baby is born. Past pregnancy, potential to become pregnant again, intent to become pregnant again and fertility/infertility status are all taken into account. That is, a boss can't say, "I'm not firing you because you're pregnant, I'm firing you because you just had a baby, and I suspect you want to have another one soon." Not allowed.

4. Lactation and breastfeeding are covered under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act. Companies have previously been required to offer space to pump breast milk for nonexempt moms, but any form of discrimination based on breastfeeding/pumping is illegal.

5. Pregnant women don't get additional medical leave rights. The EEOC clarified that there's a difference between firing a pregnant woman and firing a woman because she was pregnant. It provided this example:

Sherry went on medical leave due to a pregnancy-related condition. The employer's policy provided four weeks of medical leave to employees who had worked less than a year. Sherry had worked for the employer for only six months and was discharged when she did not return to work after four weeks. Although Sherry claims the employer discharged her due to her pregnancy, the evidence showed that the employer applied its leave policy uniformly, regardless of medical condition or sex and, therefore, did not engage in unlawful disparate treatment.

6. Abortion protection. Employers cannot discriminate against a woman who has an abortion, nor can a manager pressure an employee to have an abortion or not have an abortion in order to be promoted or put into a favorable condition. Employers are not, however, required to have health insurance that covers elective abortion.

7. Employers must treat pregnancy accommodations the same as other temporary accommodations. If a company allows light duty for someone with a back injury, it cannot deny light duty to a pregnant woman whose doctor says she needs that accommodation.

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