TLDR; Pregnancy discrimination in the workplace is a valid concern for parents and would-be parents, but there are several state and federal laws designed to protect pregnant workers. Beyond the legal considerations, disclosing a pregnancy to your employer can help both parties plan for your absence and facilitate a smooth return to work after you give birth.
Over the past few years, several cities and states have implemented stronger legal protections for pregnant employees beyond what the ADA already covers. One of the most well-known examples is the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, which has had overwhelmingly bipartisan support at the state level and has passed twice in the U.S. House of Representatives, though it has yet to come to a vote in the Senate before it may become federal law.
For more information on the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, the National Partnership for Women and Families recently published a fact sheet detailing the barriers currently faced by pregnant individuals in the workplace and what the legislation would do to strengthen protections for them.
For this blog post, let’s begin by understanding what federal legal protections exist for pregnant workers. Next, we’ll examine the best strategies for disclosing your pregnancy to your employer. Finally, we will explore optimal ways to plan for your temporary leave of absence from work so you can enjoy your time with your baby without worrying about your job.
While individual states vary in regards to legal protections for pregnant workers, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) outlines several federal-level protections for pregnant employees. First, there’s the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, which amended the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to include protections against sex discrimination for pregnant workers.
There’s also the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which includes protections for disabilities resulting from pregnancy. According to the Job Accommodation Network (JAN), the ADA may cover pregnancy-related disabilities such as “anemia, sciatica, gestational diabetes, preeclampsia, morning sickness, swelling in the legs, depression, or other impairments that substantially limit a major life activity or the normal functioning of a bodily system.”
The workplace accommodations you may be eligible for depend on the nature of the disability; modified work schedules (times and/or location), additional breaks and easier access to water and food are common examples of reasonable accommodations provided to pregnant employees.
The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) also offers protections for pregnant workers and specific guidance for requesting leave from work.
The expansion of work-from-home opportunities during the pandemic helped many people avoid some of the awkwardness of being visibly pregnant in the office, such as colleagues asking intrusive questions or managing morning sickness while on the job. Some individuals even had the luxury of hiding their pregnancies until after their child was born.
Regardless of your work schedule and location, you should still disclose your pregnancy at some point, especially if you plan to take time off after the birth.
But when should you notify your employer?
From a legal perspective, FMLA guidelines for employees state that you should let your employer know “as soon as possible” when requesting leave (at least 30 days’ notice for leave that is “foreseeable” or planned). You may disclose your pregnancy in either oral or written communications, and in your request, you should (ideally) mention how much time you plan to take off from work. On the employer’s end, they may ask questions pertaining to your leave request to determine whether it is eligible under the FMLA.
From a personal and professional perspective, how early you disclose a pregnancy to your employer may depend on a few different factors: how far along you are in your pregnancy, whether or not you need work-related accommodations to continue performing your job duties, and your relationship with your manager, just to name a few.
Ever since women gained the right to work, countless women have gone to extreme lengths to hide their pregnancies from their employers in fear of losing their jobs or experiencing another form of professional retaliation. Sadly, as this May 2021 study from the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s Center for Employment Equity reveals, pregnancy discrimination is still a problem in the United States, despite this practice being illegal for employers to engage in.
Fears of pregnancy discrimination are completely valid and understandable, but it’s worth noting that waiting too long to disclose your pregnancy at work can potentially backfire. In a March 2022 article from Quartz, employment lawyer and founder of The Mamattorney, Daphne Delvaux, points out that, “If you under-perform due to pregnancy symptoms but your employer doesn’t know you are pregnant, you can be legally terminated.”
➡️ Greater legal protections for yourself and your job security (as federal law prohibits employers from firing an employee due to their pregnancy)
➡️ More time for your boss and colleagues to plan for your leave of absence
➡️ More time for you to understand and even negotiate your benefits, such as paid time off and longer-term flexible work arrangements
➡️ Greater peace of mind, knowing you have clear plans to manage your workload and clients once you return from leave
Disclosing your pregnancy at least 2-3 months in advance would give both you and your employer plenty of time to plan for your upcoming leave from work. After you let them know about your plans to take time off for the birth and postpartum recovery, consult this list of 16 questions to ask before going on parental leave to ensure you cover all your bases well ahead of time.
✅ What accommodations (if any) do I need now to protect my health and safety while performing my job duties?
✅ What can I do to ensure a smooth transition of my work to my colleagues once I go on leave?
✅ Who will manage my clients during my absence and when should I notify them?
✅ What flexible work options are available to me, just in case I need to extend the duration of my leave?
✅ When should I schedule a “check-in” with my boss when I’m about to return from leave?
To learn more about successfully returning to work after taking parental leave, this August 2019 article from the Harvard Business Review offers several helpful pointers.
Disclosing a pregnancy to your employer can seem like a daunting task, but there are many legal protections in place to ensure your job remains secure. For more information on employee disclosures in the workplace, you won’t want to miss our informative blog post on why you should disclose a disability.