The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) updated its pregnancy discrimination guidelines this week for the first time in over 30 years. The new language reiterates the policies outlined in the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) and classifies discrimination against pregnant employees as a form of sex discrimination.

The guidelines were approved 3-2 Monday. The guidelines make it clear that an employer cannot discriminate against a worker based on pregnancy, childbirth or any related medical condition. They also disallow discrimination against someone based on whether or not they have been pregnant in the past, or want to get pregnant in the future.

“Pregnancy is not a justification for excluding women from jobs that they are qualified to perform, and it cannot be a basis for denying employment or treating women less favorably than co-workers similar in their ability or inability to work,” EEOC Chair Jacqueline A. Berrien said in a press release this week.  “Despite much progress, we continue to see a significant number of charges alleging pregnancy discrimination, and our investigations have revealed the persistence of overt pregnancy discrimination, as well as the emergence of more subtle discriminatory practices.”

In a Q-and-A section on the EEOC’s site about pregnancy discrimination, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act is explained as banning employers from firing, refusing to hire or demoting a woman if pregnancy, childbirth or any related condition was the reason for the action. The EEOC guidelines were released in part for those who may not have been aware of the cited federal laws, in order to make the requirements better understood and known.

“I think it will make a really big difference,” Joan C. Williams, a law professor whose work is cited in the EEOC’s new guidelines, told the Associated Press. “This is also the direction the courts have begun to go in, and that’s why the EEOC said, ‘Yeah, that makes sense.’”

Pregnancy discrimination complaints in the US increased by 71 percent between 1992 and 2011. Many women nationwide, especially those in low-income jobs, are forced to take unpaid leave or leave their jobs altogether during their pregnancy. Almost two-thirds of first-time mothers work while pregnant, including 90 percent of those mothers who work into their last two months of pregnancy. The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, a piece of national legislation currently stalled in Congress, would update and strengthen the Pregnancy Discrimination Act to ensure that pregnant women are not denied necessary accommodations at work.

Media Resources: Associated Press 7/16/14; NPR 7/16/14; US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission 7/14/14; Feminist Majority 10/31/13; Feminist Newswire 2/3/14

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