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family responsibilities discrimination

Family Responsibilities Discrimination Series, Part 3: Federal Laws You Can Use to Fight Back

Recently, we’ve been discussing family responsibilities discrimination (FRD) on this blog, explaining what it is and how it can occur. Now it’s time to turn to the federal laws that employees can use to fight back against FRD.

An Overview of Federal Laws That Protect Against FRD

A large number of FRD lawsuits are based on violations of federal laws. Some of the federal laws that cover FRD include the following:

This isn’t an exhaustive list! Other federal laws can sometimes be used, such as the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA). However, the list above includes some of the more common laws that cases have relied on, especially the FMLA and the ADA. We’ll discuss these five laws in turn, explaining how they apply to FRD and noting some of their limitations.

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA)

The FMLA is probably the most useful law for protecting an employee’s rights to take time away from work for caregiving responsibilities. It specifically allows eligible employees to take protected unpaid leave for certain family or personal medical reasons. The FMLA also protects employees from retaliation for exercising those rights.

While the FMLA sounds like the ideal law to prohibit most FRD, it won’t always apply to an employee’s situation. For example, to qualify for FMLA leave, the following four requirements must be met:

  • the employer must have at least 50 employees within a 75-mile radius;
  • the employee must have been on the job for at least 12 months;
  • the employee can take no more than 12 weeks of unpaid leave per year; and
  • the reasons for taking leave must fit within a limited set of circumstances, such as the birth of a child; the placement of a child with the employee through foster care or adoption; the need to take care of a child, spouse, or parent with a serious health condition; or the employee’s own serious health condition.

These requirements prevent a huge number of employees across the U.S. from enjoying protected FMLA leave. For example, if an employee needs to leave work for a single day to drive an elderly parent to a doctor’s appointment, it’s very unlikely the employee will qualify for FMLA leave.

The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA)

ADA caregiver discriminationThe ADA is best known for its prohibition of discrimination based on a disability. But the ADA contains another useful provision prohibiting discrimination based on an employee’s association with or relationship to someone who has a disability.

In situations where an employee has to provide ongoing care for a disabled family member, the ADA could apply. However, the ADA is only useful under a specific set of facts. For instance, the following two requirements must be met:

  1. the employer must have 15 or more employees, and
  2. the employee must be taking care of someone with an ADA-recognized disability.

Additionally, the ADA doesn’t actually require an employer to accommodate an employee’s need for time off work to care for a disabled individual. Instead, the ADA only prohibits the employer from refusing to provide leave to an employee solely due to that employee’s association with a disabled person.

Despite these requirements, the ADA is unique in that it doesn’t require a familial relationship between the employee and the individual being cared for.

The Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA)

The PDA prohibits discrimination based on “pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions.” Therefore, it’s an antidiscrimination statute (like the ADA), not a leave statute (like the FMLA). However, in some situations, the PDA may require an employer to provide leave to a pregnant employee so that she can go to the doctor.

For example, say that an employer allows nonpregnant employees to take leave from work due to sickness or temporary disability. That employer will have to provide leave to a pregnant employee for her doctor’s visits or risk violating the PDA.

There are two potential situations where the PDA won’t be useful against FRD. First, if the employer has fewer than 15 employees, the PDA doesn’t apply at all. Second, the PDA obviously will only help employees who are pregnant or dealing with a pregnancy-related medical condition.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964

Title VII prohibits discrimination based on color, sex, race, religion, or national origin. Like the ADA and the PDA, it doesn’t directly prohibit discrimination based on caregiving responsibilities. Therefore, its application to FRD is somewhat limited. But it can apply in certain situations.

For instance, let’s say a male employee wants to take time off from work to help raise and care for his young child. He asks his boss for a few months off from work, but his boss says, “Absolutely not. What kind of man allows his wife to work while he stays home with the kid? If you were a woman, I’d let you take time off from work, since it’s a woman’s job to care for her child. But since you’re a man, forget it.”

In this hypothetical situation, the male employee experienced FRD because his boss discriminated against him based on his sex. Unfortunately, like the PDA and the ADA, Title VII only applies to employers with 15 or more employees.

The Equal Pay Act (EPA)

Under the EPA, no employer may discriminate against an employee based on sex by paying employees of one sex less than those of the opposite sex for essentially the same or equivalent work. The EPA is another example of a federal law that doesn’t directly address FRD, but it can be used to sue an employer for FRD in certain situations.

For example, the EPA could apply where an employer pays a female employee less than an equivalent male employee because the employer believes that she will want time off for family duties and consequently should be paid less.

The EPA’s application to FRD will be fairly limited, but it remains an option in some cases.

Summing It Up

  • No specific federal law outlaws FRD, so employees will have to rely on other federal laws.
  • The most commonly used federal laws for FRD lawsuits are the FMLA and the ADA.
  • The FMLA is most applicable, but it won’t apply to every employee or every form of FRD. The FMLA also has strict limits to its application.
  • The ADA’s biggest limitations are that it won’t apply unless someone has a recognized disability.  It’s also inapplicable when an employer treats every employee equally by refusing to accommodate any employee’s caregiving needs.
  • Other federal laws that employees can use include the PDA, Title VII, and the EPA. These laws will only apply when FRD results from underlying discrimination based on pregnancy or sex.

Have you been discriminated against at work because of your status as a caregiver? Are you wondering which laws might help you fight back? Please contact our office so we can help you decipher the applicable laws and understand your rights.

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