Navigating your pregnancy at work can be hard. When it comes to understanding your employer’s policies and your legal rights, even experienced working moms can feel a little lost.
Although we’ve made strides toward normalizing pregnancy in the workplace, unlawful discrimination against pregnant workers is still rampant. While you should always consult with legal counsel if you encounter problems when you are pregnant at work, you are your own best advocate in your day-to-day.
Even in a utopian work environment, however, it’s still important to know things like how to request a reasonable accommodation for a pregnancy-related medical condition, how to negotiate maternity leave, and how to request a private lactation space.
We’ve put together the below list to help get you started.
Study your employer policies.
Pregnant or not, one thing you should always do is study your employer’s policies. When you’re planning on starting you family, you’ll want to know things like: Does your employer offer paid parental leave? If so, for how long? Does your employer provide short-term disability insurance? If so, in most cases, you will need to elect the policy before the disability arises—that means before you get pregnant.
If you need to request a reasonable accommodation for a pregnancy-related medical condition, you will also need to know how you should go about doing so. Though contacting Human Resources is usually a safe bet, sometimes smaller employers don’t have an HR Department. Reading, understanding, and following the information in your employee handbook will help you navigate your specific circumstances.
Understand your rights under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act.
The Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) of 1978 is the federal statute that amended Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the federal law that prohibits employment discrimination based on sex/gender, race, color, religion, and national origin. The PDA amended Title VII to prohibit pregnancy-based sex discrimination and it covers discrimination on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions. In general, the PDA applies only to employers who employ 15 or more employees.
These protections extend to every part of the employment process including hiring, firing, and all other employment-related decisions. In other words, your employer cannot make any employment decisions about you based on your pregnancy—favorable or unfavorable.
Know how to request a reasonable accommodation for a pregnancy-related medical condition.
Under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, if a woman becomes temporarily unable to perform her job due to a medical condition related to pregnancy or childbirth, her employer must treat her in the same manner it would any other temporarily disabled employee.
As such, if an employer has a policy that offers light duty to workers who fall ill or injure themselves on or off the job, the employer must also offer a policy that provides light duty to pregnant workers seeking an accommodation. This also extends to policies offering alternative assignments, disability leave, or unpaid leave.
If you need help navigating the reasonable accommodation process, the UC Hastings Center for WorkLife Law initiative Pregnant at Work offers several great resources. In addition to offering tips on when to share the news of your pregnancy with your employer, it gives advice, by state, on how to obtain assistance from your healthcare provider. The site also provides a list of accommodation ideas to help get you started.
For example, if you are suffering from debilitating morning sickness, you and your doctor may request that your employer:
- Allow you to take more frequent bathroom breaks
- Allow you to snack frequently during work hours
- Permit you to lie down and rest as needed
- Offer schedule changes or a remote work location until you are better
Source: Pregnant at Work
Keeping a record of your condition with your doctor and at work is an important step toward protecting yourself and your job during your pregnancy.
Be aware of your workplace lactation rights.
If you plan on breastfeeding after you return to work, understand that federal law protects your right to do so. The Break Time for Nursing Mothers provision under the Fair Labor Standards Act requires that employers provide lactating employees with reasonable break time to express milk along with a private lactation space that is not a bathroom until the employee’s baby is one year old.
Exempt employees are not covered by the Break Time for Nursing Mothers Law but may still be entitled to accommodations under other laws, such as the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, which requires that employers provide lactating employees the same access to accommodations as employees with other medical conditions.
For example, if an employer permits employees to modify their schedule to attend doctor’s appointments or if it provides other illness-related accommodations, it must grant lactating employees similar freedoms.
Many states have their own lactation accommodation laws. It is important to know what protections your state offers—particularly if they are better than the federal protections available. To learn more about the workplace lactation laws your state, visit the United States Breastfeeding Committee’s guides to state breastfeeding laws.
Contact HR or your workplace’s appropriate point person while you are pregnant to notify them of your intent to pump at work and to arrange for an appropriate lactation space in advance of your return. For some, a private space is as simple as closing their office door. For others, it requires a bit more planning, so be sure you know what your plan is before you return to work from leave.
Understand your pregnancy rights under state law.
In addition to workplace lactation laws, each state also has its own protections related to pregnancy. A Better Balance offers a state-by-state guide, which is regularly updated with new information, including changes to the law.
You need to be aware of your state’s protections since they may (1) offer you more robust protection than under federal law, and/or (2) extend protections to you that you don’t have under federal law. For example, while the PDA applies only to employers with fifteen or more employees, some states offer the same or similar protection to employers with as few as four employees.
Know how and when to have a discussion about maternity leave.
You should also know how to discuss the subject of maternity leave with your employer. First, check out this Momtastic piece on maternity leave to understand the types of leave available. You should also consult your employee handbook and/or HR.
Second, know that you do not have to disclose your pregnancy to your employer until you are ready—with some caveats. You should provide enough notice to your employer so that appropriate arrangements can be made for your absence after childbirth. And, of course, you will need to address your pregnancy if and when you request a reasonable accommodation for it.
Maintain open lines of communication—particularly written communication.
Finally, during and after your pregnancy, be sure to maintain open lines of communication. Always put all discussions regarding matters related to your pregnancy in writing. Even if you have a verbal conversation about something, be sure to follow up with an email summarizing the discussion and your understanding of it.
Even when all is well, draft something short and upbeat like:
“Dear so-and-so, thanks so much for your time discussing my maternity leave. I will plan to take 12 weeks of paid leave beginning July 6th. I will have my transition memo complete two weeks prior.”
This ensures not only that you and your employer are on the same page, but that you have documentation in the event you encounter problems or misunderstandings at work related to your pregnancy. While no one likes to imagine the worst, it’s always better to be safe than sorry.
As always, if you have questions about matters related to your workplace pregnancy and lactation rights, be sure to consult a local employment attorney.
You should also know that the Center for WorkLife Law offers a free hotline for discussing workplace pregnancy issues. E-mail or call: firstname.lastname@example.org or (415) 703-8276.
A Better Balance also offers a free legal hotline to speak with an attorney about your situation.
Wishing you a happy, healthy pregnancy.