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What is an employer’s obligation to a pregnant worker?

An employee’s pregnancy or the prospect of a pregnancy can cause some employers to behave in a discriminatory manner, even if they do not realize they are doing it. Thus, the question arises: “What is an employer’s obligation to a pregnant worker?” For example, is it better for the employer to simply pretend an employee is not pregnant and to let the employee take the lead on any issues such as time off?

California law requires that almost every employer treat pregnancy and any related conditions as a temporary disability. Pregnant workers should still have protection under federal laws if they work for a nonprofit or religious group, but the employer size needs to be bigger. A lawyer can clarify these issues for a particular situation.

Following the employee’s lead

Some employers think they are doing a pregnant employee a favor by saying something like, “Okay, let’s go ahead and block out this time for your doctor appointments or maternity leave,” but that is not the employer’s place. Instead, employers should let their employees take the lead. Each pregnant person (and each pregnancy) has unique needs and considerations, and employers should not assume they know exactly what a pregnant person needs or wants.

Providing reasonable accommodation

Often, following the employee’s lead means providing reasonable accommodation such as restroom breaks, ergonomic office furniture, telecommuting options, light duty, unpaid leave or disability leave. The employee and employer should confer to determine what works best in that situation. Employers do generally have the right to ask for medical documentation to prove the need for accommodations.

Keeping the job open

If a pregnant person takes time off, the employer usually has the obligation to keep the job available for the person to return to. Unfortunately, too many employees come back to work to find that they have been demoted or transferred or that their job has been diminished in some way.

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