What the law says about pregnant workers in safety-sensitive positions

For some women, becoming pregnant puts their jobs into new perspective.

Woman with physically demanding jobs, or those who work in safety-sensitive positions, may wonder how long they can safely perform their job duties.

However, in some cases, those women don’t have to wonder too long, because their employers force them off the job or fire them.

While it’s generally unlawful to terminate someone for becoming pregnant, these types of situations do not often play out as obvious discrimination. For example:

  • a woman might announce her pregnancy and then find herself terminated two weeks later over a minor infraction
  • an employer may insist that having a pregnant woman in a certain position is a liability and then fire the woman because she presents a supposed safety risk, or
  • a supervisor may attempt to make working conditions so unpleasant that the woman eventually feels forced to quit.

So what does the law say about situations like these? And what can you do if your employer subjects you to potentially unlawful treatment because of a pregnancy?

Laws that cover pregnancy

There are several federal laws that govern how pregnancy is handled on the job. These laws generally pertain to two areas:

  1. discrimination
  2. the health and safety of the mother

Depending where you live, state and local laws may also apply. For example, the Philadelphia Fair Practices Ordinance bars against pregnancy discrimination in city workplaces.

In terms of discrimination, the federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) bars employers from discriminating against women on the basis of pregnancy or childbirth. In basic terms, the PDA spells out that pregnant women are entitled to the same treatment as any non-pregnant employees similar in their ability or inability to work.

That means that a woman can’t be fired or demoted simply because the employer doesn’t want a pregnant woman in a certain position.

For example, we blogged about a case last year in which a bartender was fired because her employer allegedly said that customers didn’t want to see a pregnant woman behind the bar.

You don’t have to prove that it’s safe to work

Can pregnant women be forced off the job or moved to a different position because of employer’s safety concerns?

Obviously, most women are extremely concerned about keeping their unborn children safe. Sometimes, being moved to a different position may be welcome.

However, in some cases, an employer’s false perceptions about pregnancy may cloud the reality of the situation. For example, in another recent case, a woman’s employer allegedly told her that she needed to bring in a doctor’s note stating that it was safe for her to work. The woman refused and lost her job.

According to the PDA, employers may not require pregnant women to submit proof that it is safe for them to work. The employer in the case above eventually settled the case for $45,000.

What about light-duty?

Women who would like to modify their positions to safeguard their pregnancies may often do so, but it’s not always a straight-forward process.

Believe it or not, these types of issues often fall under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). While pregnancy is not, in and of itself, considered a disability, many pregnant women are able to seek workplace protection under the ADA.

In those cases, they have the same rights to workplace accommodations as any other workers who are covered by the ADA.

Women may also be entitled to work light-duty positions while pregnant. In 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that policies that limit light-duty positions for pregnant employees may have an unfair negative impact on women.

Contact us for a free consultation

If you believe that you have been subjected to unlawful treatment because of pregnancy or a pregnancy-related condition, it’s a good idea to speak to an attorney.

Email us at murphy@phillyemploymentlawyer.com, or call (267) 273-1054 for a free consultation to find out more about your rights.