The federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) outlaws employment discrimination on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions. The PDA was passed in 1978, after the Supreme Court issued a decision holding that discrimination against pregnant women was not a violation of Title VII. Because not all women are pregnant, the Court reasoned, treating pregnant employees worse than others was not a form of sex discrimination. Congress immediately responded, in the form of the PDA, to clarify that it intended "sex" to include the fundamental biological difference between the sexes, the ability to bear children.
Who Is Covered
Like other provisions of Title VII, the PDA applies to all private workplaces that have 15 or more employees. It also applies to government employees.
Discrimination Is Prohibited
The PDA specifies that pregnant employees—and those recovering from childbirth, an abortion, or the loss of a pregnancy through miscarriage—who need time off from work must be treated the same as other temporarily disabled employees. For example, a company that allows employees to return to work with full seniority and benefit rights after taking time off for a surgical operation and recovery must similarly reinstate women who take time off because of a pregnancy.
On the flip side, however, pregnant employees aren't entitled to special treatment that isn't extended to temporarily disabled workers. If it is company policy, for example, to suspend seniority rights and benefits for employees who require extended medical leave, those work benefits must also be denied to pregnant workers on leave.
Also, while the PDA bars discrimination based on pregnancy, it does not require an employer to provide a pregnant employee with leave—and does not guarantee job security while a worker is out on leave. (However, the Family and Medical Leave Act may require pregnancy and parental leave, with the right to be reinstated afterward. Some state laws also give employees the right to pregnancy leave. See our Time Off Work articles for more information.)
The PDA bars mandatory maternity leaves—and those that are prescribed for a set time and duration. The focus instead is on individual work capabilities. A pregnant woman cannot be required to take a leave from work during her pregnancy as long as she remains able to do her job.
EXAMPLE: Jody’s pregnancy is proceeding without problems, and she has no difficulty performing her job as an office manager. Even though she is a week past her delivery due date according to her doctor’s calculations, her employer cannot force her to take off work in anticipation of labor.
Hiring and Promotion Discrimination
In addition, an employer cannot refuse to hire or promote a woman solely because she is pregnant—or because of stereotyped notions of what work is proper for a pregnant woman to do or not to do.
EXAMPLE: Marsha is the most qualified applicant for a job but is six months pregnant at the time of her job interview. The company cannot choose another applicant simply because it does not want to find a replacement for Marsha when she takes time off to give birth.
The PDA also states that an employer cannot refuse to provide health care insurance benefits that cover pregnancy if it provides such benefits to cover other medical conditions.
EXAMPLE: The Dumont Company provides complete hospitalization insurance to spouses of female employees but has a $500 cap on childbirth coverage for spouses of male employees. This policy is illegal under the PDA.