How might employers accommodate a pregnant employee?

September 25, 2017

Topics: Harassment Discrimination and Retaliation  |  Disability and Leave Obligations

When an employee is unable to perform her job duties because of her pregnancy, federal, and often state, law requires employers to assist these employees by providing what are called “reasonable accommodations.”  These accommodations are actions that will allow the employee to perform her job notwithstanding limitations imposed by the pregnancy.

Like other legally required accommodations, employers usually do not need to provide accommodations to pregnant employees that impose an undue hardship on the company.  However, some state laws incorporate certain accommodations that must be made in every case and are presumed not to be an undue burden (such as permitting bathroom breaks as needed).  Other laws require employers to consider each situation to determine what is needed, and what can be provided.

Many accommodations are generally simple and straightforward.  A cashier who usually stands at the register can be provided with a stool so she can sit.  A policy limiting personal breaks can be modified to permit rest room breaks as needed.  A policy prohibiting food or drink at a workstation can be modified to either allow the food or drink, or permit more frequent breaks for its consumption.  Footrests can be provided underneath desks, and fans and/or heaters can be provided in offices or at workstations.

Other accommodations could include modifying the method of performing tasks, providing alternative assignments, moving the location of supplies so they can be more easily reached, or providing leave when a doctor certifies such is necessary.  The employee’s doctor may also require certain accommodations, such as limiting lifting or decreasing working hours.  If light duty is provided for employees who suffer work-place injuries, light duty must be provided for pregnant employees as well.  However, even if a company has a no-light-duty-policy, the pregnancy discrimination laws may require the company to consider whether such is possible for the employee in question.  If not, a temporary transfer to an open position for which the pregnant employee is qualified might be a reasonable accommodation.

Employers should not impose job changes or restrictions on a pregnant employee before the employee requests the change, even if they believe it is in the best interest of the pregnant employee.  This includes not removing pregnant employees from what the employer believes are hazardous or toxic environments on the employer’s origination.  Employers should respond only when a pregnant employee requests an accommodation, or can inquire if assistance is needed when it becomes clear that a pregnant employee cannot perform all of the functions of her job.  If the employee refuses the assistance offered, the matter should not be pursued and the employee can be required to satisfy all job requirements.  This might be a situation, however, where an employment lawyer should be consulted to ensure the company’s obligations are being fulfilled.

When the employee is ready to go on leave, such leaves are generally initially handled as they would be for any disabled employee, in compliance with the laws applicable to the company.

Employers should consult with counsel if a pregnant employee has a need for an accommodation to obtain guidance on complying with federal, state and local laws.