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Understanding the legality of pregnancy discrimination in New York

In this day and age, many would think that pregnancy discrimination is not an issue in the workplace-but try telling that to the thousands of workers who file pregnancy discrimination complaints every year. One of the latest examples of potential discrimination against a pregnant employee in the workplace is the allegation made against Oprah Winfrey’s cable network, OWN.

According to AOL Jobs, a former senior director at OWN alleges that the network froze her out of her job and did not promote her because of her pregnancy. After receiving an impressive review for her first year of work in 2010, the woman alleges issues with her employment began in the summer of 2011 when she informed her boss of her pregnancy. According to the lawsuit, the worker went on a two-week medical leave because of a health issue related to the pregnancy. A temporary employee was hired in her absence and when she returned to work, the mother-to-be claims her job duties were gradually reduced. One month after giving birth, she was laid off and later applied for a position as vice president but was rejected. The lawsuit is not yet resolved.

Laws addressing pregnancy discrimination in New York

Unfortunately, many pregnant workers suffer similar or more egregious discrimination issues every year, and pregnancy discrimination issues are on the rise. In 2011, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission received almost 6,000 pregnancy discrimination complaints. Nearly 15 years earlier 4,000 such complaints were received by the EEOC in 1997. Pregnancy discrimination complaints have risen so much, the EEOC is investigating how to encourage employers to follow the law. Employees also need to understand the law, so they are aware of and can enforce their rights in the workplace. Employees should be aware of shortcomings in the law as well.

Under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978, it is illegal for any employer to fire, demote, reassign or refuse to hire a woman for being pregnant. A pregnant woman is treated like any other worker under the federal law; however, the law does not provide any special accommodations to pregnant workers. If a pregnant worker were to receive an accommodation at work for her condition, the worker would have to look to the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.

The ADA requires employers to provide special accommodations to disabled workers with reasonable accommodations to perform central job duties. However, under the ADA only certain conditions linked to pregnancy-but not pregnancy itself-are defined as a disability requiring an employer to provide a reasonable accommodation. Since pregnancy itself is not considered a disability under the ADA, employers do not have to provide reasonable accommodations under federal law.

A pregnant worker may also look to protection under state law, but only six states, not including New York, require employers to provide pregnant women some accommodations. Therefore a pregnant woman who performs heavy lifting as a part of her work duties, may not be able to request a change in her work to meet her needs. That may change though. Bills in the respective houses of the state legislature propose requiring employers to provide reasonable accommodations for pregnant women whose health care providers agree to them. However, pregnant workers in New York City may already ask for accommodations.

Under the New York City Human Rights Law, employers in the city are required to make reasonable accommodations for pregnant employees to perform the major duties of their job. However, the accommodation must not create an undue burden on the employer.

A pregnant woman’s right to a reasonable accommodation is crucial not only for her own health but for the health of the child yet to be born. The accommodation also avoids forcing a working mother to choose between health and economic security for her family. If you are a worker who suspects pregnancy discrimination or another form of discrimination from your employer, contact an experienced employment law attorney to enforce your rights in the workplace.

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