Pregnant women have laws that protect them from being terminated from their job simply based on being pregnant or having given birth. Being pregnant, however, does not make you immune to termination for other reasons. Employers can terminate pregnant employees if they violate the terms of their contract, demonstrate poor work performance, break policies, etc. So, while it is illegal to fire someone for being pregnant, pregnancy does not guarantee that you won’t lose your job for another reason.

Can you terminate a pregnant employee?

Pregnancy Discrimination Act

An amendment made to the Civil Rights Act in 1978 grants pregnant women the right to work. This act prohibits discrimination based on pregnancy, childbirth, or medical conditions related to pregnancy and birth. The Pregnancy Discrimination Act is enforced by the government through the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The law applies to companies with more than 15 employees and protects employed pregnant women or those seeking employment in a variety of ways:

  • Companies must allow pregnant women to continue doing their job as long as they are capable.
  • Employers may not exclude applicants or deny employees employment privileges because of their pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions.
  • Companies cannot terminate, deny assignments, or deny promotions to employees because of their pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions.
  • Employees’ work performance cannot be judged based on a stereotype or assumption regarding their pregnancy.
  • Employees cannot be fired for filing a complaint against their employer regarding Pregnancy Discrimination Act violations

At-Will Employment in California

Most California employees are “at-will” employees, which means they are free to leave a job at any time. At-will employees can also be terminated at any time for any reason (other than reasons that are against the law). Reasons that an employer cannot legally terminate an employee include their race, gender, religion, disability, or ethnic background. While pregnancy is not technically a disability, it falls under that category in the case of employment discrimination. This means it is illegal to terminate an employee because they are pregnant or because of conditions related to their pregnancy.

On the other hand, “at-will” employment does provide employers with flexibility when it comes to terminating employees for non-discriminatory reasons. Even pregnant women can be fired from their job for a variety of reasons not related to their pregnancy if the employer can prove the reason for termination. At-will employees can be fired for reasons including:

  • Falsifying records
  • Violating company policies
  • Incompetence or poor quality of work
  • Frequent absences or tardiness
  • Theft
  • Sexual harassment or discriminatory behavior
  • Violence toward or making threats against other employees

Employers who are firing a pregnant person for legitimate reasons should take care to document the process and follow the same procedures they would for any other employee being terminated. This includes providing written warnings to the employee as rules are broken or performance fails, and documenting all steps you take with the Human Resources Department.

How Can I Prove Pregnancy Discrimination?

If you believe your pregnancy was a motivating reason for your termination, hiring an experienced California employment law attorney will be crucial to your fight. You need to be able to prove that you were fired due to your pregnancy and not for legitimate reasons. Examples of proof that will help you build a case include:

  • Suspicious timing: If you had been rated high on performance reviews and received little or no write-ups prior to disclosing your pregnancy, but then suddenly are getting poor reviews or write-ups after disclosing, this constitutes suspicious timing. It is especially suspicious if you have not changed your work methods and continue to perform similarly to how you had been prior to your pregnancy.
  • Employer’s failure to prove their cited reason for termination: Employers may try to make it look like they fired you for a legitimate reason when, in fact, your pregnancy was the main factor. If you were fired for poor quarterly sales performance, for example, but you outperformed coworkers who did not also get fired, they could be attempting to hide the fact that they actually terminated you due to you being pregnant.
  • Comments made by your employer about your pregnancy impacting business: This can be difficult to prove, so being proactive about reporting any suspicious or discriminatory comments, or documenting them in writing in some way, can be important. If your termination was preceded by comments from your employer regarding how pregnancy and raising a family impact job performance or dedication, you may be able to prove that they are engaging in discriminatory practices.
  • Being treated differently than non-pregnant coworkers: If you can prove that you were treated differently than coworkers after disclosing your pregnancy, you may have grounds for a discrimination case. For example, an employer suddenly assigns you more difficult tasks compared to the rest of the team, attempting to set you up to fail, so they have grounds to terminate you. Another example of different treatment is not following the company policy when it comes to warnings and corrective plans prior to being fired – just terminating you after one “strike.”

If any of these scenarios could apply to you, an attorney can help guide you through the appropriate steps for seeking justice. A lawyer will assist you in gathering as much evidence as possible and in promptly filing a complaint with the EEOC or the DEFH.  Wrongful termination cases have a 3-year statute of limitations in California, so gathering evidence and filing a complaint with the DFEH as soon as possible will help you avoid running out of time.

Were You Terminated for Being Pregnant?

If you believe you were terminated for a reason related to your pregnancy or birth of a child, contact a skilled employment law pregnancy discrimination attorney to determine what steps to take. California Employment Council has a team of experienced California employment lawyers who will analyze your situation and provide you with options for how to proceed. Pregnancy is an exciting time in your life, but it can be overshadowed by stress if you have recently been terminated for an unjustified reason. Contact us today to discuss your case.