Pregnancy job discrimination occurs when an employer bases employment decisions on an employee's pregnancy. The Pregnancy Discrimination Act and the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) are the primary federal laws that protect employees and applicants from pregnancy job discrimination. State laws may offer additional protections.

Title VII protections against pregnancy job discrimination

The Pregnancy Discrimination Act is an amendment to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. Discrimination on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth or related medical conditions (e.g., doctor-prescribed bed rest) constitutes unlawful sex discrimination under Title VII. No employer with 15 or more employees may bias decisions regarding hiring, firing, job assignment, leave, and benefits on an employee's pregnancy. The law covers both married and unmarried pregnant women.

Specific pregnancy-related protections include:

Recruitment and hiring. Employers can't refuse to hire an applicant because she is pregnant, nor can an employer ask an applicant if she plans to have children and base a hiring decision on her answer.

Pregnancy-related leave. Pregnancy must be treated the same as any temporary physical condition. An employer must hold a job open for an employee on pregnancy-related leave the same length of time jobs are held for employees on disability leave. Employers must also allow the same job modifications to a pregnant employee as they do to a temporarily disabled employee. Pregnant employees may work as long as they are able to perform their jobs and are not required to stay on leave if a pregnancy-related condition (e.g., severe morning sickness) improves. Employers may not establish a predetermined length of time that a pregnant woman must remain on leave following childbirth.

Health insurance. If an employer offers health insurance, it must cover pregnancy-related conditions at the same rate as other medical conditions. An employer's health insurance doesn't have to cover abortion expenses, except in cases where the employee's life is endangered. Female and male spouses of employees must receive the same level of benefits.

Other benefits. An employee on pregnancy leave must get the same benefits as an employee who takes leave for other health reasons (e.g., heart surgery). These may include benefits such as vacation accrual and seniority accrual.

FMLA's protections against pregnancy job discrimination

An employee may take 12 weeks of unpaid FMLA leave for the birth of a child. Employees are eligible for leave if they work for an employer with 50 or more employees and have worked at least 1,250 hours during a year. Both father and mother are entitled to FMLA leave.

An employee on authorized FMLA leave retains benefits and is given the same or equivalent job once leave is completed. FMLA leave for childbirth expires one year after the date of the child's birth.

Additional resources:

U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission: Pregnancy Discrimination

U.S. Department of Labor E-Laws: FMLA Advisor, Birth and Care of a Child

Workplace Fairness: Pregnancy Discrimination