Being pregnant is a joyful time. As your family expands, your body begins to expand as well to accommodate your newest family member. At some point, it will be time to tell people outside your inner circle that you are expecting a child. The response will likely be overwhelmingly positive as you spread the news, and most people will surely wish you well. Unfortunately, this is not always the case when it comes to employers.
Some bosses and managers are less than thrilled to find that an employee is pregnant and will be owed maternity leave and extra accommodation in a few months. A few may even attempt to fire you or get you to leave after discovering that you are expecting. While these practices may have been legal in the past, they certainly are not allowable in the present day. If you have been terminated from a job while pregnant, you may have grounds to take legal action against your former employer.
Pregnancy Discrimination: The Basics
It is essential to understand the rights you have while pregnant before you begin to take legal action against your former employer. The first step is to identify what is going on. If you have been terminated from a job because you are pregnant, this is classified as a type of sex discrimination called pregnancy discrimination. This covers people who are pregnant, are within childbearing years, and employees who have childbearing sex organs. This means that an employer may not neglect to hire a person who is pregnant or may become pregnant, pass up an employee who is pregnant or may become pregnant for a raise or advancement opportunity, or fire an employee for being pregnant.
What Do Pregnancy Discrimination Laws Do?
Pregnancy discrimination laws are in place to ensure that starting or growing a family does not make a person ineligible for career stability or advancement. It is important to note that the laws protecting this group of people from discrimination do not call for special treatment for a pregnant person but instead state that an employer may not treat an employee differently because they are pregnant. However, this does not mean that an employer must not acknowledge that an employee is pregnant or make basic accommodations for a pregnant employee to do their job. The law classifies pregnancy in the category of “temporary disability,” alongside conditions such as a broken arm or sprained ankle. If an employer would make accommodations so that a person who had a fractured arm could still do their job, they must also make basic accommodations for pregnant employees to continue to do their jobs. However, they could not choose an employee for a promotion simply because they are pregnant. Accommodation is fine; special preference, treatment, and discrimination are not.
Applications of Pregnancy Discrimination Laws
It can be difficult to perceive these types of protections in the abstract, so it is often helpful to see them spelled out in different examples. An employer may not do any of the following, or it is considered to be pregnancy discrimination:
- Refuse to hire an otherwise employable candidate because they are pregnant.
- Fire someone for being pregnant.
- Require that a pregnant employee take leave at a certain point in the pregnancy if the employee does not wish to.
- Deny pregnant employees promotions, raises, bonuses, special training, or other advancement opportunities.
- Refuse to provide reasonable accommodation for a pregnant employee.
- Enact discipline for pregnancy-related absences.
There can be infinite manifestations of pregnancy discrimination under these categories, and sometimes it can be challenging to know if it is happening to you. If you feel that you have been unfairly treated or singled out only because of your pregnancy, you may have a case. Be sure to have reliable counsel on your side.
Is It Legal to Fire Someone While Pregnant?
It is crucial to distinguish between being fired while pregnant and being fired for being pregnant. Your employer is within their rights to fire you while you are pregnant if you break company policies via actions outside of your pregnancy. However, they may not fire you for violating company policies via actions that have to do with your pregnancy. For example, if you are stealing from the company while pregnant, you can still be fired. If you are late to work due to morning sickness or a prenatal doctor’s appointment, you cannot be fired. It is important to note that in California, at-will employees can be fired for any reason. As long as the cause is not a direct result of your pregnancy, your employer is clear to fire you.
Maternity Leave and Reasonable Accommodation
Many people wonder about people who physically cannot perform their job duties because of their pregnancy. In some cases, jobs may be too strenuous, dangerous, or simply physically impossible for a person who is pregnant. If this is your situation, your employer is still not allowed to fire you. Under the Pregnancy Disability Leave law, pregnant employees of companies with five or more people have the right to 17 weeks of leave. According to the California Family Rights Act, companies of 50 or more must give 12 weeks of medical leave and family care time. This time is often referred to as “maternity leave,” but that term has the reputation of being a leave that is taken once the baby is born. This does not necessarily have to be the case. These four months can be taken at any time in pregnancy and do not need to be taken at the end of a pregnancy. This time can also be taken when the child is born in order to accommodate the challenges of adjusting to a new member of a family.
However, maternity leave is not the only way in which employers must accommodate their pregnant employees. If they can do so, employers are legally bound to make changes or accommodations to a person’s job while they are pregnant to make it possible for them to continue to work. These can be several different things. In some cases, this means allowing an employee to sit when they would otherwise stand at work, telecommute to meetings rather than travel, or allow frequent breaks without penalty. In cases in which the job itself is dangerous to a pregnant employee, the employer must offer the employee a different position or workload for the duration of their pregnancy. This job switch cannot change the pay rate of the pregnant employee and should be an accommodation that is requested or approved by the employee as well as the employer. It cannot be forced upon them.
Can You Sue If You Get Fired While Pregnant?
Though no circumstance of discrimination is acceptable, being fired for being pregnant is especially hurtful. Not only do you feel embarrassed about losing your job, but you are likely also worried about things like health care and finances to support you and your baby. Fortunately, you do have options if you have been fired while pregnant. There are legal steps you can take to win back lost wages and regain your financial foundation.
The first step in suing for pregnancy discrimination is proving that discrimination has occurred. There are several ways you may be able to do this, so your method may differ depending upon your situation.
The most straightforward way to prove discrimination is through direct evidence. This can come in the form of emails, memos, letters, or anecdotal evidence. For example, if your boss says something such as, “we wanted to keep you on the team, but we know a new mom won’t be able to put in the hours we need,” you have direct evidence of discrimination.
Though direct evidence cases are more straightforward, they are not particularly common in the modern day. Many bosses and managers are aware of pregnancy discrimination laws and know what not to say. More often, the evidence for pregnancy discrimination is circumstantial. This can occur in several different ways. If you are looking to prove your case based on circumstantial evidence, examine the following:
- Patterns. Were there other pregnancies in the office? Were those employees fired at a certain point in their pregnancies as well? Were other pregnant employees passed up for promotions? Examining the company’s overall attitude can determine if there is a pattern of inappropriate behavior toward pregnant employees.
- Timing. Were you succeeding at work until you disclosed your pregnancy? Did your company show signs that they were looking to fire you before you got pregnant, or has their behavior changed?
- Termination procedures. Most companies have a written procedure for firing employees. With the exception of an outstanding incident, most workplaces provide verbal and written warnings before firing employees. Look in your handbook or HR office for the termination procedures and determine if your company followed its own rules in your case.
- Reasoning. Consider the reasons that they gave for firing you, and see if they hold up. For example, if they fired you, saying that they needed someone with UX experience and then hired someone with less training than you have, that is a clear sign that they were insincere about their reasons, and your pregnancy may be the real reason you were let go.
These forms of evidence require a bit more investigative work than direct evidence, but they are much more commonly found in pregnancy discrimination cases.
First Step to Seeking Justice
Your first step to seeking justice for your pregnancy discrimination case is filing a report with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or the EEOC. This government organization protects the right of classified groups from discrimination in the workplace and can help assess your case. Generally, they can look at your case within 180 days. They will inform your former employer that a case has been opened against them, which allows you the opportunity to solve your dispute in mediation if that is agreeable to both you and your former employer. If that is not the chosen plan of action or over 180 days have passed, you may opt to sue instead. The EEOC will give you a “right to sue” letter that can be used to begin the legal case against your former employer.
Right to Sue Letter
Your right to sue letter is the key to the legal process, and you will need to obtain this before you can file a claim. As mentioned, you can obtain this letter automatically after 180 days, or you may request it from the EEOC earlier than that if you know that you want to take legal action. Please note that your request may not necessarily be accepted before the 180-day investigation period is complete, but in some cases, the EEOC will grant you a right to sue letter during that time. If a letter is granted, the EEOC will not continue to investigate your case. If you wish them to do so, you will need to wait for your right to sue letter. In some relatively rare cases, the EEOC’s investigation will lead them to file a claim on your behalf. This occurs in cases with overwhelming evidence that a law has been broken, and their action is part of their process to enforce anti-discrimination laws. However, the majority of claims are not filed by the EEOC but rather by individuals.
Finding an Attorney
You are legally allowed to find an attorney at any point in this process. It will likely be helpful to have an experienced person on your side to help you through the anti-discrimination process and help you gauge whether you have a viable case on your hands. However, it is entirely possible for a person to file a case with the EEOC on their own, without legal representation. Once you receive your right to sue letter, hiring an attorney is necessary, and the process goes quickly. You have only 90 days after your letter is issued to file a claim against your former employer. This means that having an attorney on retainer or having a firm in mind is a good idea from the beginning. If you already have someone to turn to, there should be no problem filing a claim within that time. If you are scrambling to find someone, it may be more difficult to meet the deadline, and it is possible that you will be unable to take legal action at all.
What Happens If You Lose Your Job While Pregnant?
Once you begin the process of suing a former employer for pregnancy discrimination, the legal process begins to move fairly quickly. Many people feel intimidated by this, but the system is in place to protect your finances and provide you with support as soon as possible. Depending on your situation, your attorney may be able to reach a settlement on your case before it goes to court. This is often what happens if you have not yet tried to mediate your situation with your employer before filing a claim, as it is a similar process. However, there are cases in which mediation was unsuccessful, but when attorneys become involved, the case can be settled outside of court. If this does not happen, your case will move to court as any legal case does. Here a judge and jury will assess the situation from both sides and conclude if discrimination occurred and how much your employer owes you if anything.
How Much Can I Expect From a Settlement?
Settlements vary in size depending on the situation and case. Usually, part of the settlement includes repayment for lost wages for the time that you were unfairly out of work. Depending on how long it has been between when you were fired and when the case is closed, this number can vary. Many settlements also involve punitive damages against your former employer for violating Title VII and discriminating against you on the basis of sex/pregnancy. This number can vary as well but is known to be upward of $50,000. Again, this depends on the situation and the prevalence of inappropriate behavior in the workplace. An additional sum may be added to cover your litigation costs so that you are not paying out of pocket for seeking justice and fairness for what was illegally done to you. In more severe or high-profile cases, settlements from pregnancy discrimination cases have been within the millions of dollars. Your attorney will be able to give you an idea of what your settlement may look like and what to expect if you win.
Cases on the Rise
While you may assume that the number of pregnancy discrimination cases has gone down due to an increase in understanding and equality, the opposite is true. In recent years, there has been a rise in pregnancy discrimination cases against employers. This could be for several reasons. It is possible that discrimination laws are becoming stricter as more cases are won in court and precedents are set. The rise could also be because pregnant employees better understand their rights under the law and are more likely to defend those rights than ever before. These changes could also be because there are more employers and businesses in the United States than there ever have been, and many leaders in those businesses have moved to put the company first rather than closely examine and comply with the law. Whatever the reason, if you have been fired for being pregnant, it is important that you act. Not only could the settlement allow you and your family to continue your standard of living, but you could also prevent your former employer from perpetuating a toxic and discriminatory work environment that will only serve to hurt others in the future. By fighting this type of prejudice and discrimination, you are improving the validity of everyone’s rights.
Finding the Right Attorney
Many attorneys are familiar with discrimination cases and the laws surrounding the EEOC. Your first filter for attorneys should be to seek out those with significant experience in pregnancy discrimination and sex discrimination specifically. This can give you a significant advantage. While discrimination of any kind is wrong, each kind of discrimination is a little bit different and deals with other areas of law. By finding an attorney who is well versed in pregnancy discrimination, you give yourself extra specific resources and expertise during the legal process. For some people, it is preferable to find an attorney who is of their same gender. For pregnancy specifically, you may have to discuss relatively intimate topics with your attorney so that they may get a good picture of what is going on. Consider if the attorney’s gender is important to you, and be sure that you feel comfortable with whomever you hire.
Contact California Employment Counsel, APC
Discrimination cases are some of the most heartbreaking and emotionally difficult legal cases that exist. It is never easy to discover that you have been treated differently because of a condition or trait beyond your control. One of the fundamental rights of all people in the United States is the right to begin and nurture a family. Though this may look different to different people, there is absolutely no reason why beginning a family should risk your job, professional reputation, or income security. At California Employment Counsel, we understand these basic rights, and we empathize with the emotional difficulty of having them stripped from you. This is why we work diligently to defend those who have been discriminated against in the workplace and strive to enforce the laws that make our country’s workplaces equitable. We approach every case with kindness, empathy, and patience, knowing that what you are experiencing is difficult. In the courtroom, we are thorough and ruthless in our pursuit to defend your rights and your family from illegal discrimination.
If you believe that you have been fired because of your pregnancy, there is no time to waste. Contact California Employment Counsel today to begin your fight to protect your family.