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Pregnancy discrimination lawsuits (and the EEOC’s focus on them) on the rise

February 28, 2012

Recently, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has indicated a renewed focus on discrimination against pregnant women. The EEOC recently held a public meeting in Washington, D.C. to discuss the continuing problem of pregnancy discrimination in the workplace. During that meeting, EEOC Commissioner Stuart Ishimaru called pregnancy discrimination “an issue of vital concern” for the EEOC, promising to “vigorously enforce the anti-discrimination laws as they apply to pregnant women and caregivers.”

While pregnancy discrimination charges increased by more than a third over the past decade, the number of complaints filed with the EEOC has declined in recent years after peaking in 2008. Recent data indicates that trend may be reversing. The EEOC’s 2011 statistics show an increase in the number of pregnancy discrimination lawsuits, suggesting that the EEOC’s renewed attention to this issue is more than just lip service. Indeed, the EEOC just recently announced that it is filing a lawsuit against a Washington, D.C. law firm for allegedly rescinding an offer of employment after learning that the prospective employee was six months pregnant.

Given that most employers will have a pregnant employee at some point, it is essential for employers to know the law regarding pregnant employees. Discriminating against any woman on the basis of pregnancy is considered unlawful sex discrimination under both federal and Wisconsin law. That means that during the interview process, an employer must treat pregnant job applicants in the same way as they would other job applicants. Employers cannot refuse to hire a woman because of her pregnancy or pregnancy-related condition. Once employed, pregnant workers must be treated the same as other employees based on their ability or inability to work, and pregnancy-related disabilities must be treated the same as other short-term disabilities. For example, if an employer’s policy is to allow employees to take six weeks of leave to address medical issues, than the employer must also allow a pregnant employee to take six weeks of leave for pregnancy-related issues. Employers must also be mindful of their legal obligations under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and Wisconsin Family and Medical Leave Act (WFMLA).

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