Entrepreneurs: what do you know about best practices and laws regarding pregnant employees? What are they entitled to ask for while expecting, or after delivery? And, what laws are in place to protect small-business owners when it comes to excessive requests for accommodation?
Of course, every entrepreneur wants to take good care of her or his employees — after all, a satisfied, respected workforce is great for office culture, and the bottom line. But beyond that, it’s helpful to understand the national, state and local laws that exist on the matter, and how they affect small-business owners in particular.
That’s why we’ve done some research — with a bit of help from William Perkins, a labor and employment lawyer at Seyfarth Shaw; with this brief-but-helpful guide, you’ll be on your way to becoming a supportive, caring manager, while at the same time ensuring that your rights (and your business) are protected.
The Law of the Land
When it comes to discussing official policies for pregnant employees and their employers, there are three laws to be aware of — the Family Medical Leave Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act (particularly the 2008 Amendments Act), and the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978. Though state and local laws also play a part (we’ll talk later about how you can get more information about those), these are the primary federal laws to be aware of when creating and implementing your policies for pregnant workers.
Together, they’re a mouthful — let’s take them one at a time.
First, as a small-business owner, you should know that the FMLA is applicable to businesses with 50 employees or more. Though many small businesses fall below that number, it is still helpful to know that this law entitles employees to up to 12 weeks of work leave for pregnancy or serious medical conditions (which could include prenatal care or incapacity due to pregnancy).
The ADA, meanwhile, applies to businesses with at least 15 workers, and while it does not define pregnancy alone as a disability, it does offer protections to those who suffer impairments due to pregnancy (or medical conditions that develop during gestation). The 2008 amendment, which went into effect in 2009, makes it even easier for employees to prove the connection between impairment and pregnancy. And those who can are entitled to reasonable accommodations in the work environment, such as modifications to scheduling or workplace policies.
Perkins referred to decisions regarding modifications as an “interactive accommodation process,” and noted that an employer is not required to automatically agree with the employee’s initial request.
“Many times, employees will suggest something that isn’t great for the employer. The employer is free to say, ‘Thanks for telling me [about your situation],’ but then suggest another way that ultimately satisfies the condition while being less disruptive for the employer,” he said, adding that an employer is never required to eliminate an essential job function as part of a reasonable accommodation.
“For example, a pregnant woman says she can’t work after 3 p.m., but she’s a compliance officer for an investment bank, and part of her job is to review trades that occur throughout the day. The market doesn’t close until later in the afternoon, and she has to be there after it closes to review those trades. And, it’s a situation where attendance is mandatory to do the work.” That would qualify as an undue hardship on the employer, says Perkins.
The last law, the PDA, differs from the other two in that pertains specifically to the treatment of employees and job applicants. It dictates that women who are pregnant, have been pregnant in the past or could potentially become pregnant are not to be discriminated against in any fashion.
It should be noted, however, that a recent court decision (Young v. UPS) might affect the specifics of these laws and how they are applied to employer-employee relations. That case focused on UPS driver Peggy Young, whose request for a temporary light-duty assignment — her doctor recommended she not lift packages heavier than 20 lbs. during her pregnancy, while the job required employees to lift packages of up to 70 lbs. — was denied by the company. Both sides used specific language written into the PDA to argue their respective cases.
In late March, the Supreme Court’s ruling essentially split the baby by not categorically ruling in favor of either, but rather, by reversing an earlier decision dismissing the case, thereby giving Young (and others in her position) a day in court. The Huffington Post has a great breakdown of the case, for more information.
Being a Supportive Boss
Beyond the legalities of the matter, there are certain polices and best practices to keep in mind as you endeavor to create a nurturing environment for all employees, including those who are pregnant.
The Washington Post recently published an article examining the stigmas and difficulties women face as they continue to work further and further into their pregnancies. An upcoming study that sparked the report is said to show that pregnant women feel pressure to put in additional effort, out of fear that employers “will start viewing them as distracted or less competent.”
The article continues, “Female workers frequently avoided asking for help or special accommodations, researchers found. High rank didn’t quell worries: Entry level employees and managers expressed similar fears. Some hid their pregnancies for as long as possible.”
And it’s not just women who are negatively affected by workplace policies and attitudes toward expecting parents. Perkins also mentioned the frequent failing on the part of employers to remember that fathers, too, need bonding time with their newborn children.
“One thing that’s very important is the major shift in terms of how people look at discrimination. So, one thing to remember in terms of best practices is to provide bonding leave for both men and women,” he says, adding that such a failing could even have legal implications. “To have a policy where you provide such leave to women but deny it to men could potentially be viewed as an act of discrimination.”
So in addition to compliance with the law, how can employers nurture expecting parents in their work forces? Flexibility, positivity and respect are key. And this listicle of advice from 500.co has some great pointers — among them, the important tip to refrain from touching a pregnant woman’s stomach.
Getting More Information
As we mentioned earlier, state and local laws also play significant roles in terms of what employers are legally required to do for employees who are expecting, or have recently given birth. Perkins recommends speaking with a lawyer about the specifics of locally applicable laws to your business.
“In terms of startups, you may have a lawyer in your group and you may not, but there’s always a connection to a law firm (perhaps in creating the LLC, or incorporating the business),” he says. “Most firms will have business law connections; that would be one of the better ways to get that info.”
In addition, the Small Business Administration, U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and other organizations offer online one-sheets and guides for employers designing policies for pregnant or expecting staff.
Ultimately, one of the primary goals of any employer should be to support your employees, and to create a workplace that inspires positivity, productivity and a strong effort from everyone who works for you. Ensuring open lines of communication and creating clear, researched policies are significant steps to take toward being a fair and supportive boss to expecting workers.