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Postpartum depression is often dismissed as a condition that describes new parents who feel tired and overwhelmed. However, it’s a much more serious and widespread condition than many people realize. According to the CDC, about one in eight new mothers will experience postpartum symptoms during or after their pregnancy.

Mothers experiencing postpartum depression describe feeling guilty and worthless; many even experience suicidal ideation. These emotions and the physical symptoms that accompany depression can be debilitating, making it harder to accomplish daily care tasks, much less go back to work. 

Luckily, in California, parents may have the option to take protected disability leave or receive other accommodations for postpartum depression. Here’s what you need to know about when pregnancy-related depression becomes a disability, when it qualifies for leave, and how to seek accommodations for your condition. 

Are Pregnancy-Related Health Issues Considered Disabilities?

For decades, health conditions related to pregnancy fell into a gray area in US law. Until the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act of 2008 (ADAAA), there was significant debate about whether pregnancy-related conditions could qualify as “impairments” under the original ADA. Many courts held that they did not, as a pregnant person is not normally perceived to have a disability, and their abilities would no longer be limited after their child is born.

The ADAAA changed this by requiring the definition of a disability to be construed broadly. It also clarified that the cause or duration of a disability does not impact the disabled person’s rights. As such, employers were required to grant the same accommodations or medical leave to people with pregnancy-related conditions as non-pregnant workers with equivalent impairments.

However, even after the ADAAA was implemented, only conditions caused by pregnancy were considered impairments. This included mental and physical health issues ranging from preeclampsia to postpartum depression, but pregnancy itself was not considered a disability and was not subject to the ADAAA. It was not considered grounds for accommodations or protected leave nationwide until the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (PWFA) was enacted in June 2023.  

Pregnancy Protections vs. Disability Protections

But does it matter whether being pregnant is considered a disability? It’s because there are a variety of protections available in California for both pregnant and disabled workers that may not overlap. Understanding these protections and when they are available can help new parents make the most of their rights. The most important state protections for expecting parents include:

  • California Family Rights Act (CFRA) Leave: Under the CFRA, all employers with five or more employees must provide their workers up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave in a rolling 12-month period to recover from serious health conditions or bond with a new child. However, expecting parents may hesitate to take this leave for disabling conditions during their pregnancy if they expect to need time to recover from postpartum depression after labor. 
  • Pregnancy Disability Leave (PDL): California also requires companies with five or more workers to provide employees with up to four months of protected pregnancy disability leave if a person is disabled by a pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical condition. This only applies when a condition is disabling and runs simultaneously with CFRA leave.
  • Reasonable Accommodations: California required employers to provide reasonable accommodations for pregnant people long before the federal PWFA was enacted. These accommodations can include additional time off from work for health concerns if necessary and reasonable. 
  • State Disability Insurance (SDI) and Paid Family Leave (PFL): If someone needs to take leave for their own disabling health condition, they may be eligible for SDI wage replacement. They may also qualify for PFL if they take CFRA leave to bond with a new child. 

Mothers experiencing depression related to their pregnancy may be able to maximize their protected time off by using PDL and CFRA leave concurrently while they are disabled. Once they are no longer impaired, if they have CFRA leave remaining, they can use it as bonding time with their child.

When Does Postpartum Depression Constitute a Disability?

There is no strict definition of when the baby blues become disabling postpartum depression. However, the California Civil Rights Department (CRD) explicitly names conditions such as severe morning sickness, gestational diabetes, and postpartum depression as conditions that may be grounds for PDL. 

Additionally, the CRD states that a condition caused by a pregnancy is determined to be disabling by the person’s healthcare provider. As a general rule of thumb, healthcare providers typically determine that someone is disabled according to their employers’ purposes if a mental or physical health concern prevents them from accomplishing core job responsibilities. For example, depression may be incapacitating if you cannot focus or struggle to get out of bed. 

Your provider will give you a note for your employer explaining what accommodations or leave you need to recover. Your employer must provide you with the accommodations or PDL your provider recommends unless it places an “undue hardship” on the business. Furthermore, your employer cannot ask about the details of your condition, nor can your provider share those details without your permission.

What to Do If You’re Denied Accommodations for Postpartum Depression

While significant postpartum depression is almost certainly disabling, some employers may still attempt to deny your request for accommodations or PDL. If your manager refuses to grant you leave or you experience retaliation because of your request, it’s time to get professional help.Le Clerc & Le Clerc LLP is there for you. We have decades of experience representing pregnant employees whose rights have been violated. We are prepared to advocate for your right to PDL and reasonable accommodations in the workplace. Get in touch to learn more about how we can help you.

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