Many pregnancies go smoothly, with routine doctor’s visits for nine months then an uneventful and uncomplicated birth. As a result, the mother may only need a few weeks off from work for the time leading up to and following the birth.
But what happens if there are complications or problems with the pregnancy? Does the employer need to reasonably accommodate its pregnant employee for these complications?
Generally speaking, the answer is yes. If the employer refuses to provide reasonable accommodations, the employer may have illegally discriminated against its pregnant employee, as evidenced by Andrea Mosby Meachem’s recent legal victory against the public utility Memphis Light, Gas & Water Division (MLGWD).
The Facts of the Case
Meachem was a staff attorney for MLGWD, and after working there for about seven years, she became pregnant. Unfortunately, Meachem suffered from a medical condition where her cervix shortened. This put both herself and her unborn child at risk. This condition was treatable, but Meachem would need surgery and bedrest for the rest of her pregnancy.
Meachem notified her boss that because she needed to be on bedrest until her baby was born, she would telecommute or work from home. Her boss initially indicated that this would not be a problem, but the request for telecommuting was eventually denied. MLGWD claimed that it did not allow telecommuting, even though Meachem was allowed to work by telecommuting during her hospital stay.
After giving birth, Meachem returned to work, where she received a negative performance review. Meachem claimed the performance review was unfair because it contained lies, the review discussed problems that were never brought to her attention, and Meachem was never given an opportunity to discuss her negative performance review with her superiors.
Meachem sued MLGWD, alleging that MLGWD discriminated against her because she was pregnant, discriminated against her because of her pregnancy complication, and retaliated against her when she returned from maternity leave.
Retaliation is any adverse action an employer takes against an employee because the employee engaged in a legally protected activity. In Meachem’s case, she claimed that MLGWD retaliated against her by giving her an unreasonably negative performance review and taking work assignments away from her.
The case made its way to a jury trial that Meachem won, although it was not a clean sweep.
Meachem did not succeed with her claims of retaliation and pregnancy discrimination (under the Tennessee Human Rights Act). However, she was successful on her claim of pregnancy discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Why did Meachem win under the ADA? Basically, it was because MLGWD should have reasonably accommodated Meachem (as required by the ADA) but chose not to.
The Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990
The Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 prohibits discrimination based on disability. But if that’s the case, how did Meachem win under the ADA and not under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 (PDA)? That’s because a “normal” or typical pregnancy is not considered a disability, but a pregnancy with certain complications is considered a disability.
Meachem won because she was discriminated against as a result of complications from her pregnancy, not because she was pregnant. Therefore, the legal protections for which she was able to obtain her legal victory originated with the ADA, not the PDA.
Since the law considered Meachem a disabled employee due to her pregnancy complications, MLGWD was legally required to make reasonable accommodations for her. Reasonable accommodations are changes an employer must make for an employee, as long as the changes do not impose an “undue hardship.” An undue hardship can be defined as “significant difficulty or expense” in relation to the employer’s ability to make the reasonable accommodations.
In the case of Meachem, her reasonable accommodation request was to be able to work from home while she was on bedrest. MLGWD refused, even though it had already allowed Meachem to work from the hospital. This made it hard for MLGWD to argue that Meachem’s request would impose “significant difficulty or expense.”
For more information about reasonable accommodations and the ADA, see our website’s articles “The Americans With Disabilities Act and If You Have Problems at Work” and “The Reasonable Accommodation Process.” The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission also has a nice article titled “Pregnancy Discrimination.”
Summing It Up
- Pregnancy by itself is not considered a disability under the ADA, but complications that arise from the pregnancy can be recognized as a disability.
- The ADA requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to employees who suffer from a disability.
- Depending on the job and facts of the case, a request to be able to telecommute or work from home due to pregnancy complications can be considered a request for a reasonable accommodation.