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How U.S. Employers Have Handled Pregnancy in the Workplace

October 17, 2019 in History

By Sarah Pruitt

Women working while pregnant in the United States have faced shifting rules and protections through the decades.

As the only industrialized nation in the world with no federal policy mandating paid maternity leave, the United States has a long and complicated history of how employers have handled pregnancy in the workplace.

From mandating reduced hours for pregnant employees to waffling on whether or not to treat pregnancy as a disability, employers have varied widely in how they have accommodated—or not accommodated—expecting women on their payrolls.

From the Progressive Era to the Civil Rights Act

During the , the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) initially determined that maternity wasn’t subject to the same rules as other temporary disabilities under Title VII. Later, the commission argued exactly the opposite: Employers were required to treat pregnancy like any other temporary disability.

This confusion over how employers should treat pregnant workers proceeded to play out in a series of legal battles. Most importantly, in the 1976 case General Electric (GE) v. Gilbert, the Supreme Court determined that an employer-provided plan paying workers part of their wages for short-term disability, but not pregnancy, did not discriminate against women. Employers shouldn’t be required to cover an “additional risk, unique for women,” the Court ruled, adding that pregnancy was “voluntary,” unlike other temporary disabilities.

What the majority decision ignored, as Gardin and Richwald noted, was that GE at the time did not exclude voluntary injuries like cosmetic surgery or attempted suicide, and that it did insure workers against male-only risks, including vasectomies.

READ MORE: Why Royal Women Gave Birth in Front of Huge Crowds for Centuries

The Pregnancy Discrimination Act

In 1978, in response to the controversial GE decision and pressure from women’s rights advocates, Congress passed the Pregnancy Discrimination Act as an amendment to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. The law made it illegal for companies with 15 or more employees to consider pregnancy in hiring, firing or promotion decisions, and required employers to treat pregnant workers the same as non-pregnant workers who are “similar in their ability or non-ability to work.”

Pregnancy discrimination did not end with passage of the new law, however. In court, employers charged with such discrimination were able to successfully argue that workers who got pregnant were similar to workers who were injured off the job, and did not deserve special accommodations.

Young v. UPS (2015)

Peggy Young (right), the plaintiff …read more


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