Pregnancy Discrimination and Unionized Workplaces: Legal Recourse for Union Members

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Pregnancy Discrimination and Unionized Workplaces: Legal Recourse for Union Members

As a union worker, the rules in your collective bargaining agreement or contract are the rules that are followed by the employer and its union workers. Your employer may follow federal and state laws in some areas, but a union contract can add additional protections and benefits. 

For example, your employer may provide 15 vacation days per year to everyone, but the union contract states that those vacation days are paid at a rate of 1.5x for union workers who are employed for 10 consecutive years or more. Union contracts can add agreements like that.

When you’re pregnant and feel you are being discriminated against, what are your options for legal recourse? Learn what pregnancy and breastfeeding discrimination entails and what steps to take if you believe you’re a victim of discrimination.

What Are the Common Forms of Pregnancy Discrimination?

Pregnancy discrimination occurs when policies or behaviors at work impact a woman of childbearing age or who is pregnant from doing their job or feeling comfortable at their job. It may happen during hiring and interviews, during a pregnancy, or after a pregnancy when a woman returns to work. The return to work can extend into breastfeeding discrimination.

  • Maternity Leave: A woman is entitled to time off after giving birth or before her due date if she needs to stop working for a pregnancy-related issue, such as bed rest. This may entail the use of short-term disability or the Federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). In California, qualifying new moms can transition from disability insurance to Paid Family Leave PFL) giving them up to 60% to 70% of their wages while they bond with their newborns.
  • Pregnancy-Related Harassment: A woman is treated in a negative or recurring way due to her pregnancy, birth, or health-related to her pregnancy. If a woman’s co-worker continually makes jokes about her weight gain taking up a lot of office space, it can be humiliating. That’s a type of harassment.
  • Reasonable Accommodation: Suppose a pregnant woman is told to stop lifting heavy weights, to eat more frequently, to work from a seated position, or to avoid chemicals and hazardous materials, she can ask her employer to adjust her work area or job duties to ensure that happens. Her employer needs to do everything possible to accommodate her request.
  • Return to Work: After returning to her job, a pregnant woman cannot be demoted to a different job or given a new role, unless that new role has equal or higher pay.

If a worker announces she’s pregnant and is told days later that her job is being terminated due to her condition, it’s discrimination. She cannot be demoted to another position for a lower wage, though she could take another position for the same pay or a higher wage IF she agrees to the change.

Federal and State Protections for Pregnant Workers

The federal government provides some protections, but states often have their own regulations that increase protections.

One of the protections pregnant women receive is part of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It protects women against sexual discrimination, which is a tie-in to the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA). Women cannot be discriminated against for a potential pregnancy, current pregnancy, or past pregnancy. They also are protected from discrimination related to breastfeeding and lactation, pregnancy-related medical conditions like gestational diabetes, or other aspects like having or not having an abortion or using birth control.

The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (PWFA) requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations when a worker is pregnant, has a baby, or has a pregnancy-related medical condition. The only reason for a company to refuse to provide accommodations is if the request is not financially possible or will harm the business. For example, if a company has a limited number of workers, it may not be possible to allow a pregnant worker to shift to half days for the remainder of the pregnancy.

The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) is the final federal law available to protect women during pregnancy. Pregnancy isn’t a disability, but some aspects of pregnancy can be. Any medical condition that leads to a request for reasonable accommodation does have to be proved with medical notes from a doctor. That said, those medical records and any related information need to be kept confidential.

California protections add the Paid Family Leave (PFL) benefits for bonding with a new child, caring for an ill family member, or for reasons related to a military deployment. PFL provides a weekly payment of about 60% to 70% of the highest wages you’ve earned in the past 5-to-18-month period. In addition, workers in San Francisco may be covered by a specialized San Francisco Paid Parental Leave Ordinance. PFL comes after you use short-term disability benefits.

Union Protections for Pregnant Workers

Those are the federal and state laws, but a union contract adds additional protections. If a woman feels she’s been discriminated against, she talks to her steward to file a grievance. Her union fights for her and will represent her if needed in a hearing or legal proceedings. Unions also provide awareness training and fight for the best protections possible for union workers when negotiating a contract renewal.

The National Labor Relations Act protects you against being penalized for asking the union to help. Your employer cannot retaliate if you file a grievance. 

What Does Pregnancy Discrimination Look Like? An Example

In 2022, a Port of Los Angeles worker filed a complaint through the California Civil Rights Department for gender, breastfeeding, and pregnancy discrimination. She’d landed a desirable longshore worker position and started working part-time after passing the tests and gaining the protections of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 13. 

She was breastfeeding a child and needed to pump milk during the day. When she asked where she could, her supervisor directed her to a bathroom, even though that goes against breastfeeding discrimination laws. She ended up weaning her child early rather than continuing to experience difficulty asking for a break and finding a suitable place.

Eventually, she became pregnant again and needed pregnancy accommodations against things like exposure to chemicals and heavy lifting. Her union and supervisor refused to make the accommodations she needed, and she injured herself during her sixth month of pregnancy. Her doctor strongly advised her to stop working, but she couldn’t afford to. She ended up doing what her doctor recommended and filed a complaint with the California Civil Rights Department. 

During pregnancy, after giving birth, and while breastfeeding, your rights are important. Being told no or that you’re being an inconvenience isn’t an option. Stand up and fight for your rights. You pay union dues and sign a collective bargaining agreement that lists your rights as a unionized worker. 

If you’re facing pregnancy or breastfeeding discrimination, talk to your union steward. If that doesn’t get you a fair and legal solution, contact an attorney specializing in pregnancy discrimination and breastfeeding discrimination laws. 

Shegerian Conniff is here to fight for your rights. You work hard and deserve fair and legal treatment. Don’t let a lack of funds keep you from contacting a California employment law expert. We work on a contingent basis where we get paid out of our settlement offer or award. Reach out to us online or by phone and let us know how we can help.

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