Pregnancy discrimination in the workplace is prohibited by both Massachusetts state and federal law. Employees who suffer pregnancy discrimination can seek numerous forms of relief, including punitive damages, back pay, front pay, emotional distress damages, and reinstatement. As Boston pregnancy discrimination attorneys, we appreciate the important role of family rights cases in leveling the playing field.Pregnancy Discrimination Based On Gender Stereotyping
Pregnancy discrimination is a form of gender discrimination, which is prohibited by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Massachusetts Fair Employment Practices Act. Specifically, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act amended Title VII to make clear that “women affected by pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions shall be treated the same for all employment-related purposes.” Notably, in Nevada Department of Human Resources v. Hibbs, the Supreme Court observed the primary caregiver stereotype that women in the workplace face:
Because employers continued to regard the family as the woman’s domain, they often denied men similar accommodations or discouraged them from taking leave. These mutually reinforcing stereotypes created a self-fulfilling cycle of discrimination that forced women to continue to assume the role of primary family caregiver, and fostered employers’ stereotypical views about women’s commitment to work and their value as employees.
Similarly, under Massachusetts law, courts have interpreted the Fair Employment Practices Act to include pregnancy as a form of gender discrimination. In Massachusetts Electric v. MCAD, the Supreme Judicial Court held that an employer’s policy to deny disability benefits to female employees who suffered pregnancy-related disabilities, while at the same time paying such benefits in all cases where the impairment was unrelated to pregnancy, clearly constitutes sex discrimination:
Pregnancy is a condition unique to women, and the ability to become pregnant is a primary characteristic of the female sex. Thus any classification which relies on pregnancy as the determinative criterion is a distinction based on sex. … The exclusion of pregnancy-related disabilities, a sex-based distinction, from a comprehensive disability plan constitutes discrimination.
More recently, in Sivieri v. Commonwealth of Massachusetts, a Massachusetts Superior Court denied summary judgment and allowed a gender discrimination to proceed to trial where, according to the plaintiff, management assumed that she was no longer interested in a promotion after the arrival of her child and resulting family obligations. In doing so, the court reasoned:
[S]tereotypical remarks about the incompatibility of motherhood and employment can be evidence of gender discrimination. These types of statements reflect a discriminatory animus not towards parenthood, but towards women, based upon antiquated ideas about what a woman’s role in society should be. Basing employment decisions on such sex-based overgeneralizations constitutes gender discrimination prohibited by c. 151B.
Social science studies have documented the inherent bias that women with children in the workplace face. In one particular study entitled Getting a Job: Is There a Motherhood Penalty?, researchers found that participants perceived working mothers as less competent, held them to higher standards, and offered mothers significantly lower pay than female employees without children.
These decisions and research highlight the hurdles with which women in the workplace are forced to contend and to overcome. Recognizing instances of disparate treatment early on and professionally communicating one’s concerns through the proper channels may provide significant leverage in breaking the proverbial “glass ceiling” or, at the very least, ensuring an efficient transition.Pregnancy-Related Rights: Break Time & Reasonable Accommodations
Under Section 7(r) of the Fair Labor Standards Act, nursing mothers are entitled to a “reasonable break time” to express breast milk for one year following a child’s birth. Where an employee requires such a break, the employer must provide “a place, other than a bathroom, that is shielded from view and free from intrusion from coworkers and the public.” Although the statute does not mandate that such breaks be paid, an employer who generally provides compensated break time can not refuse to compensate a nursing mother who wishes to use her break time to express milk.
While there is no employee threshold requirement, employers with less than fifty employees need not provide such an accommodation if doing so would impose an “undue hardship.” In addition, the law only applies to non-exempt employees, thereby generally excluding working mothers in more senior roles. Relatedly, although not explicitly within the employment context, Massachusetts law specifically allows women to breastfeed in any public or private venue and provides for a civil right of action to those whose rights are ignored. For more information, visit the Department of Labor’s page, “Break Time for Nursing Mothers.”
Pregnant employees, among others, are entitled to various forms of medical leave. Moreover, under the ADA Amendments notably 29 C.F.R. §1630.2(j)(1)(ix), “[t]he effects of an impairment lasting or expected to last fewer than six months can be substantially limiting.” As such, pregnancy-related medical conditions such as gestational diabetes and preeclampsia may rise to the level of a disability, entitling an employee to reasonable accommodations under the Fair Employment Practices Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act. Reasonable accommodations for pregnant employees in such circumstances can range anywhere from working from home to modified work schedules to time off beyond the twelve weeks afforded under the Family and Medical Leave Act.
As women continue to challenge workplace stereotypes, pregnancy and family rights discrimination cases will likely rise. A collection of selected cases from The Center for WorkLife Law highlights the liability that employers face, and the range of evidence that must be gathered to successfully assert a pregnancy discrimination claim.
As lawyers concentrating in employment law and located in the heart of Boston, we look forward to meeting with you and addressing your pregnancy discrimination concerns.Pregnancy Discrimination: Learn More
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