The difficulties faced by pregnant employees, whether they work in large corporations, local stores, or in the government, are difficult to overstate. A number of federal and state laws, such as the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, are designed to protect pregnant employees from discrimination at work. But the question remains: which types of laws/programs fare better in helping pregnant employees?
Vanderbilt law professor Jennifer Shinall tackles this question in her recent study, which finds that some, but not all, types of legislation designed to protect pregnant employees help these workers keep working during pregnancy and after giving birth.
After analyzing the various laws and related state disability programs, Professor Shinall found that:
- Pregnancy accommodation laws and paid family leave improve labor market outcomes for women who have recently given birth,
- However, pregnancy transfer laws and state disability insurance programs do not.
The goal of her paper, Protecting Pregnancy, is to help guide and inform policymakers and advocates seeking to help pregnant employees in the workforce.
What The Study Analyzed
According to her report, Professor Shinall looked at four categories of laws that various states have enacted:
- Pregnancy accommodation laws, which require employers to adjust a pregnant employee’s job duties
- Pregnancy transfer laws, which require employers to shift a pregnant employee into an open, equivalent job
- State disability insurance programs, which generally provide financial support for a certain period of time to any employee with a medical condition that temporarily interferes with work. This can include complications from pregnancy or birth, but does not generally extend to a normal pregnancy or childbirth
- Paid family leave laws, which provide short-term financial support to any new parent following the birth or adoption of a child
Through the American Community Survey, which is compiled by the Census Bureau, Professor Shinall obtained labor market data on women who had given birth in the previous year. Her analysis controlled for a series of factors, including: age, education, race, marriage, and having other small children at home
She then calculated the impact of that state’s pregnancy protection laws on the average recently pregnant worker’s employment status, wages, and number of weeks worked in the previous year.
The Study’s Results
Professor Shinall determined that pregnancy accommodation and paid family leave appeared to help pregnant employees stay employed, while pregnancy transfer and short-term disability laws seemed to either offer no benefit or in some cases actually harm the employees.
More specifically, she found that:
- Pregnancy accommodation laws increased employment rates for these workers by as much as 2.2 percent, labor market participation by as much as 5.6 percent, and raised the average number of weeks worked by up to two weeks during the year the employee gave birth.
- Paid family leave programs increased employment rates by up to 1.7 percent, labor market participation up to 5.2 percent and increased the average number of weeks worked by up to two weeks.
Pregnancy transfer laws, however, had a negative employment effect. It reduced employment rates by up to 1.4 percent and decreased the number of weeks worked by one week. “One of the reasons this may have happened is that the employee may have been transferred into a job that wasn’t a good fit, and decided not to stay or was fired,” Shinall said.
Laws That Protect Against Pregnancy Discrimination And How They Can Be Improved
Professor Shinall’s analysis can hopefully inform policymakers as they continue to forge a legislative path to better protect pregnant employees and their families.
To supplement the existing protections for pregnant employees, which includes Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, and local/state laws, one potential improvement is the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, which the House Education and Labor Committee took up earlier this year.
This Act would make it illegal for employers to deny accommodations for limitations due to pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions. The legal analysis would follow the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)’s framework—which employers are already well-acquainted with—and require employers to provide pregnant workers with reasonable accommodations.
While we wait and watch how federal and state governments move forward to help pregnant employees and their families, if you are an employee who has experienced discrimination at work based on pregnancy or other childcare responsibilities, it may be helpful to speak with an experienced employment attorney to find out what options are available to protect your rights.