Employers Cannot Play “Father Knows Best” To Pregnant Employees

It may seem that’s where we’re heading, but its no longer the ‘fifties.  Paternalism is a no-no when it comes to pregnant employees.

We’ve said it before – it is against the law to discriminate – to fire – pregnant employees “for their own good.”

One more employer has learned that lesson and is $55,000 lighter after settling an EEOC lawsuit.

A furniture store in North Carolina hired a woman as a shop apprentice, a job in which she would have to use various chemicals to repair furniture. When she told the company’s shop trainer that she was pregnant, she was summoned to meet with the regional shop manager.

The regional shop manager showed her “a can of lacquer thinner that contained a warning that the contents could potentially pose a risk to a woman or her unborn child, and discussed the warning with [her]. …

[She] was then told that because she was pregnant, she could no longer work at the facility.”

Bad move.

Past Cases 

The EEOC sued a while back alleging that an employee at a Motel 6 in New Orleans informed her employer that she was pregnant and that it was a “high-risk” pregnancy.   When she later called her manager and told him that she could not work that day because of a pregnancy-related illness, he responded that he was “modifying the work schedule and taking her off the schedule for the entire week, despite the fact that she only needed one day off.”  She was later “placed on a leave of absence until her pregnancy was over,” although she never requested this.

A “forced leave of absence without pay due to her pregnancy” – this is what the EEOC alleged in the lawsuit was violative of Title VII.

I wrote on November 20, 2015 about an employer who fired a housekeeper after learning that she was pregnant, contending that “it could not allow her to continue to work as a housekeeper because of the potential harm to the development of her baby.”   An EEOC attorney said then that “Employers may not bar pregnant employees from work because of outdated myths or stereotypes.”

Not long ago the EEOC announced the settlement of a PDA case where a Texas-area donut franchise allegedly forced an employee into unpaid leave when it’s owner/general manager “received information that [she] might be pregnant.”   The EEOC claimed that the owner refused to permit her to work “unless she provided a doctor’s release indicating that her pregnancy was not ‘high-risk’” (PDA violation) and then fired her when she complained about this (retaliation).

For this, the company had to pay $45,000 in settlement.

The EEOC’s press release stated then that “Under the PDA, an employer cannot force a pregnant employee, or one the employer suspects of being pregnant, to provide medical documentation proving that the employee can continue working, unless the employee requests some pregnancy-related accommodation. Further, if an employee complains about pregnancy discrimination, the employer must investigate that complaint and must not take any retaliatory employment action against her.”

Takeaway:  An EEOC lawyer recently got it precisely right about the law:

“Pregnant women have the right to make their own decisions about working while pregnant, including the risks they are willing to assume. If there may be a potential health concern, it is up to the woman and her doctors to evaluate. Companies must not impose paternalistic notions on pregnant women, as doing so can result in unlawful discrimination.”


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Richard Cohen

Richard B. Cohen is a partner in the New York City office of FisherBroyles, LLP, a national law firm. Richard Cohen has litigated and arbitrated complex corporate, commercial and employment disputes for more than 35 years, and is a trusted advisor to business owners and in-house counsel both in the United States and internationally. His clients have included Fortune 100 companies, domestic and foreign commercial and investment banks, Pacific-rim corporations and real estate development companies, as well as start-up businesses throughout the United States. Email Richard at [email protected]