Recent comments from Jacqueline Berrien, chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), could lead to heightened enforcement of discrimination related to pregnancy.

Despite the fact that the EEOC last held a meeting focused on pregnancy discrimination in 1983 and last issued enforcement guidelines regarding potential discrimination against employees with caregiving responsibilities in 2007, Berrien stated during a recent commission meeting that “pregnancy discrimination persists in the 21st century workplace, unnecessarily depriving women of the means to support their families” and “similarly, caregivers —both men and women—too often face unequal treatment on the job.

The EEOC is committed to ensuring that job applicants and employees are not subjected to unlawful discrimination on account of pregnancy or because of their efforts to balance work and family responsibilities.”

According to EEOC Commissioner Stuart Ishimaru, “discrimination against pregnant women and caregivers continues to be of vital concern for the Commission” and “employers should not make decisions based on stereotypes and presumptions about the competence and commitment of these workers … the EEOC will vigorously enforce the anti-discrimination laws as they apply to pregnant women and caregivers.”

Testimony provided at the hearing included the following:

  • Despite the passage of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act more than 30 years ago, women still often face demotions, prejudice and even job loss when they become pregnant
  • Pregnant women are met with harassment and hostility in response to their pregnancies
  • There is a measurable motherhood wage penalty of as much as 5 percent per child that may be due to unconscious stereotyping of the capabilities of mothers
  • The aging of the population and changing demographics mean that 42 percent of U.S. workers have provided care for an aging relative or friend in the last five years and almost half of U.S. workers expect to provide eldercare in the next five years
  • Both women and men face obstacles in their work lives due to their roles as caregivers
  • Low-wage workers are particularly affected by pregnancy discrimination and discrimination because of caregiving

Employers should heed both the comments made by EEOC Commissioners and the elicited testimony as reminders regarding the following:

  • The need to train HR professionals to recognize the implications of Title VII, the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Family and Medical Leave Act in considering the accommodation requests of both pregnant employees and those employees with caregiving responsibilities
  • If a woman is temporarily unable to perform her job due to a medical condition related to pregnancy or childbirth, she must be treated the same way as any other temporarily disabled employee, including providing light duty, alternative assignments, disability leave or unpaid leave.