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EEOC’s Focus on Pregnancy Discrimination

Earlier this week, we gave you an overview of the issues that, according to a recent draft of its Strategic Enforcement Plan (“SEP”), the EEOC is likely to target in the coming years.  One of the emerging issues highlighted in that draft relates to pregnancy discrimination, specifically, situations which force women into unpaid pregnancy leave after being denied accommodations routinely provided to similarly situated employees.  In lock step with the EEOC’s express priorities, the following relevant cases have emerged over just the last few months:

EEOC v. Bayou City Wing - Pursuant to a policy in its employee handbook, Bayou City Wings laid off eight female employees after the third month of their pregnancies.  At least one employee was terminated despite providing a note from her doctor indicating that she could work up to the 36th week of her pregnancy without any restrictions.  Bayou City Wings argued that keeping a pregnant employee pas the third month would "be irresponsible in respect to her child's safety" and would jeopardize his position with the company "for not following procedures."  The EEOC seeks an injunction, back pay with pre-judgment interest, reinstatement or front pay, compensatory damages and punitive damages, in amounts to be determined at trial.

EEOC v. Quest Intelligence Group – Tabitha Feeney was fired from her security officer job after taking maternity leave. Feeney had worked as a security officer for Quest for nearly one year, prior to her leave. After her leave, she contacted Quest to return to work, and the employer told Feeney that there was no work available. Quest indicated to Feeney they would bring her back if any positions opened up, but they never called. The EEOC’s investigation showed that the company had solicited and hired several male employees after Feeney’s request to return to work. EEOC filed suit, seeking lost wages, damages for emotional distress, and punitive damages, as well as injunctive relief such as training for company managers and employees, and compliance monitoring by the EEOC.

EEOC v. J’s Seafood, Panama City, Florida – J’s seafood restaurant laid off two pregnant waitresses because, as alleged by the EEOC, "their pregnancies caused them to be a liability to the company." Both employees were hired in June 2011, and fired in October 2011, after the restaurant became aware of their pregnancies. The EEOC filed suit in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida, seeking monetary damages, including back pay, compensatory and punitive damages, reinstatement and injunctive relief.

EEOC v. Muskegone River Youth Home - The EEOC claims that the Muskegone River Youth Home policy requiring “employees to immediately notify the company once the employee learns she is pregnant, and requires her to produce a certification from her doctor that she is capable of continuing work” is a form of pregnancy discrimination that  violates the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, a part of Title VII of the Civil  Rights Act.  The EEOC seeks an injunction prohibiting Muskegon from maintaining the relevant policy.

EEOC v. Chemcore -   Settled on September 21, 2012,Chemcore Industries, Inc. agreed to pay employee Marie Simmons $30,000 after firing her within hours of learning she was pregnant. Beyond the monetary award, a consent decree included provisions for equal employment opportunity training, posting of anti-discrimination notices, and reporting of internal discrimination complaints.

In addition to the EEOC’s focus on pregnancy discrimination, legislation was proposed earlier this year in the U.S. Senate, which would require employers to reasonably accommodate pregnant employees and applicants.  The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, introduced by Sens. Bob Casey (D-PA) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), would also require reasonable accommodations for those limited by childbirth or related medical conditions.  The bill includes a hardship exception for employers.  Additionally, the bill makes it unlawful to deny employment opportunities to a pregnant employee or applicant because of the required reasonable accommodation, or to require that a pregnant employee take leave if she can otherwise be reasonably accommodated during her pregnancy.  The bill also reiterates that employers may not take adverse employment action based upon pregnancy or the taking of leave for pregnancy related reasons. The bill also specifically directs the EEOC to issue regulations that identify and clarify some reasonable accommodations related to pregnancy and childbirth.  Currently employers are prohibited from taking adverse employment against an employee because she is pregnant, and there are also some protections available under the Americans with Disabilities Act for employees with pregnancy complications, but they are not currently required to reasonably accommodate employees with regular pregnancies.

Given the recent focus on the treatment of pregnant employees, it may be an important time to evaluate whether your employment policies and actual workplace practices – written or unwritten - adversely impact pregnant employees? If you aren’t sure, now may be a time to revisit your employment policies and management training procedures.

This article is intended as a summary of newly enacted federal law and does not constitute legal advice.

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