Pregnancy Discrimination and Medical Leave

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This Q&A is intended to provide general information about pregnant workers’ rights, medical and family leave, and anti-discrimination laws. It is not intended to provide legal advice or guidance as to whether such laws apply to you. Advice can only be provided by a qualified attorney, and then only after she or he has carefully reviewed the facts of your situation. 

Can I be fired just because I am pregnant?

NO.  For employers with eight employees or more, Washington law protects women against discrimination based on pregnancy, even if they experience complications that make it difficult or impossible to work while pregnant.

Can my employer force me to take leave because I am pregnant?

NO.  An employer cannot force an employee to take time off simply because she is pregnant
or gives birth, so long as she can perform her job.

Can I request an accommodation?

YES. For employers with 15 or more employees, Washington law requires employers to provide reasonable workplace accommodations to pregnant workers who need them. In some situations, an employer may deny accommodations where the cost or difficulty is significant, but it cannot do so if the request is for more restroom breaks, modified food/drink policies, seating, or limits on lifting 17 pounds or more. (Note: a smaller employer may be required to accommodate you if it accommodates non-pregnant workers with a similar restriction or if you have a medical complication, depending on the circumstances).

When do I need to provide my employer with a doctor’s note? 

An employer may ask for a doctor’s note if you seek an accommodation, such as: modified equipment or work station, job restructuring, modified scheduling, reassignment, temporary transfer, assistance with manual labor or limits on lifting under 17 pounds, and flexible scheduling for doctor visits. An employer may not ask for a doctor’s note for the following accommodations: more restroom breaks, modified food/drink policies, seating, or limits on lifting 17 pounds or more.

Can I lose my job because I need an accommodation? 

The law prohibits employers from firing a pregnant employee because she needs  accommodation or forcing the employee to take leave from work if the employer can accommodate her instead.

Do I have a right to time off to give birth and recover from childbirth?

YES. For employers with eight employees or more, Washington law provides for a reasonable amount of time off for a woman to have her baby and recover from childbirth. This leave period is usually six to eight weeks, depending on doctor recommendations.

If your employer has 50 employees or more, you have worked for at least 12 months, and you have worked at least 1,250 hours in the past 12 months, you may have a right to up to 18 weeks of leave. If you have pregnancy or childbirth-related complications, your employer may be required to provide you additional time off.

Do I get paid while I’m on leave from work? 

MAYBE. Your employer is not required to pay you while you are on leave, but some employers do, and some short term disability plans provide for payment while on leave. (Note: starting in 2020, paid leave will be available to most workers).

What happens to my health care benefits while I am on leave from work?

If your employer has 50 employees or more, you have worked for at least 12 months, and you have worked at least 1,250 hours in the past 12 months, your employer is required to maintain your health insurance coverage on the same terms as if you continued to work. If you are normally required to make co-payments you must continue to do so during your leave.

What if my employer thinks I can’t be a good employee and a good mother?

It is unlawful for an employer to act on gender-based stereotypes. For example, it is unlawful for an employer to deny job opportunities to women because they have young children. It is also unlawful to reassign a woman who has recently returned from maternity leave to less desirable work, based on the assumption that, as a new mother, she will be less committed to her job or unable to devote sufficient time to it.

What about pumping or breastfeeding? Can I ask for a private location?

YES. The law grants most mothers the right to take appropriate breaks to express milk, and requires employers to provide a private place to do so.

What if I am not a U.S. citizen? Am I still protected?

YES. Pregnancy laws cover all employees, regardless of citizenship or immigration status.

What should I do if my employer disagrees about my right to receive an accommodation, or to take pregnancy or maternity leave?

You should consult with a lawyer. Your rights may depend on a number of factors. A lawyer can advise you on communicating with your employer about your rights, obtaining the accommodations you need to keep working, taking leave, and returning to work.

What should I do if I am harassed because I am pregnant?

Unwelcome and offensive language or conduct (comments, jokes, pictures, threats, assaults, intimidation, and interference with work performance, etc.) motivated by the subject of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions may constitute unlawful harassment. Follow your employer’s policy for reporting harassment. If there is no policy, report the incident to a supervisor or human resources department and ask (orally and in writing) that the offensive behavior stop. An employer has a duty to investigate your complaint and take prompt and effective action to end the harassment.

What if I complain about discrimination or harassment and then get demoted or fired?

The law prohibits most employers from taking action against an employee for making a good-faith complaint of discrimination or harassment. Unlawful retaliatory acts may include a change in work duties, increased harassment or scrutiny, criticism, demotion, suspension, or termination. If you experience retaliation, you should consult a lawyer immediately.

What can a lawyer help me with?

Your legal rights depend on a number of factors. A lawyer can help evaluate your situation, determine if your employer has violated the law, preserve your rights, and advise you about your options and the value of your claim. A lawyer may be able to help you improve your current work environment, keep your job, or get your job back in the event of termination. You may be able to recover compensation for lost wages and emotional distress, and other damages. Because there are deadlines for every legal claim, you should talk to a lawyer as soon as possible.

MHB employment attorneys Katie Chamberlain, Joe Shaeffer, Leslie Hagin, Jesse Wing, Tiffany Cartwright, Jeff Taren, and Sam Kramer, have successfully advised and represented pregnant workers and parents who have been treated unfairly, harassed at work, wrongfully terminated, or denied accommodations or leave.  You can reach us at (206) 622-1604.

Sources: EEOC Enforcement Guidance; Washington State Family Leave Act Q&AA

For more than a decade, attorney Katie Chamberlain has helped employees vindicate their rights. She is passionate about seeking justice for women denied their right to medical or maternity leave and helping those treated differently or harassed in the workplace because they are pregnant or have children. Katie has two sons.

Attorney Joe Shaeffer has represented employees for more than a decade. Joe stands up for people, including working mothers, who have been treated unfairly, harassed at work, or wrongfully terminated. Joe has a son and a daughter.

Attorney Leslie Hagin has represented employees for more than 15 years. She provides zealous advocacy and practical counsel to women and others who have been discriminated or retaliated against, or harassed for exercising their right to pregnancy, maternity/paternity, family medical, or disability leave.

For a quarter-century, attorney Jesse Wing has successfully represented employees on a wide variety of discrimination and harassment claims, including pregnancy, maternity and paternity leave issues, as well as discrimination claims in housing and mortgage lending. He has two daughters.

Attorney Tiffany Cartwright represents employees and other individuals who have had their civil rights violated. A mother herself, Tiffany is committed to enforcing the rights of pregnant women and all parents when it comes to equal opportunity in the workplace.

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