Wrongfully Terminated for Being Pregnant in California

California has several laws protecting pregnant employees.

Did your California employer fire you because you are pregnant? If so, you may have a wrongful termination case against your employer. This article explains your rights as a pregnant employee and what to do if you believe you were wrongfully terminated because of your pregnancy.

Rights of Pregnant Employees

Federal and California laws protect pregnant employees from discrimination. The also require employers to provide time off and reasonable accommodations to pregnant employees, in certain circumstances.

Pregnancy Discrimination

The federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) prohibits employers with 15 or more employees from discriminating based on pregnancy, childbirth, and related medical conditions. For example, employers may not fire or discipline an employee for getting pregnant, refuse to hire an applicant because she is pregnant, or rely on stereotypes about pregnant women and new mothers in making job decisions.

The California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) also prohibits discrimination on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, and related medical conditions. Unlike the PDA, the FEHA applies to all employers with five or more employees.

Reasonable Accommodations for Pregnancy

Under the PDA, employers must provide pregnant employees with the same accommodations provided to employees who are temporarily disabled by other health conditions. For example, it would be discriminatory for your employer to provide light duty or other job modifications to all employees with work restrictions except pregnant employees.

The federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to an employee suffering from a pregnancy-related disability. Normal pregnancies, and the usual physical changes and limitations that come with them, are not considered disabilities under the ADA. However, if you are suffering from a disabling pregnancy-related condition, such as gestational diabetes or preeclampsia, you may have a disability under the ADA. (For more on the ADA, see our Disability Discrimination page.)

California law gives pregnant employees more protections than federal law. Employers subject to the FEHA must provide pregnant women with reasonable accommodations when they have medical restrictions due to pregnancy, childbirth, or a related condition. This means that you may be entitled to light duty, a temporary job transfer, or other accommodations, even if your employer doesn't accommodate other employees and even if you don't have a pregnancy-related disability under the ADA.

Leave From Work

You may also be entitled to take time off work for certain medical reasons relating to pregnancy and childbirth. If your employer has at least 50 employees, it must comply with the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). The FMLA gives eligible employees the right to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid time off work for medical needs and caretaking responsibilities, including:

  • prenatal care (including regular doctors' appointments)
  • inability to work during pregnancy for health reasons, such as morning sickness or medically-required bed rest
  • serious health conditions arising from pregnancy and childbirth, and
  • parental leave.

Employees must meet certain eligibility requirements to take FMLA leave, including having worked for their employers for at least one year. (For more information, see Taking Family and Medical Leave.)

The California Family Rights Act (CFRA) requires employers to provide leave similar to that required under the FMLA. California also has a pregnancy disability law, which applies to employers with five or more employees. These employers must provide up to four months of unpaid time off to employees who are unable to work due to pregnancy, childbirth, and related conditions. When an employee is eligible for leave under both federal and state law, she can take up to four months off for pregnancy disability leave and then 12 weeks of FMLA leave for bonding with the child.

State Benefits

Unlike most other states, California has a state temporary disability insurance program that funds both disability leave and family leave. An employee who is temporarily unable to work due to pregnancy and childbirth can receive up to two-thirds of her usual wages through this program. After having a child, an employee can receive partial wages under the state’s paid family leave program for up to six weeks to bond with the child. (These programs don’t give you the right to take time off, only the right to be paid for that time through the state insurance program.)

What to Do If You Were Fired Because of Your Pregnancy

You may have a claim against your employer for wrongful termination if you were fired because of your pregnancy, because you couldn't perform your job duties and were denied an accommodation, or because you requested or used leave under the FMLA or the California Family Rights Act.

Filing an Administrative Charge of Discrimination

If you believe your employer violated federal or state discrimination laws, such as the PDA, ADA, or FEHA, you’ll need to file a charge of discrimination with a government agency. You may file with either the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal agency that interprets and enforces workplace discrimination laws, or California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH). Depending on your claims, you have either 300 days or one year to file your charge.

You may not file a lawsuit until you have taken your claims to the EEOC or the DFEH. (These agencies have a work-sharing agreement with each other, so a complaint filed with one agency is also filed with the other.) Either agency may investigate your claims, try to settle the case with your employer, or propose mediation. (See Filing an EEOC Charge of Discrimination to learn more.)

If you want to file a lawsuit right away, you can ask the EEOC or the DFEH to issue you a right-to-sue letter: a document that confirms that you have met your obligation to file a charge with the agency. But be ready to act quickly: Once the letter is issued, you will have only 90 days to file a lawsuit based on your federal claims. You have one year after receiving the DFEH letter to file a lawsuit.

If you claim that your employer violated the FMLA or the California Family Rights Act, you can go straight to court without filing anything with a government agency.

What Damages Are Available for Pregnancy Discrimination?

If you win your lawsuit, you can ask the court to order your employer to give you your job back. However, this remedy, called reinstatement, isn’t very common. Often, there’s just too much hostility between the former employee and employer to make this work. Also, reinstatement might require displacing the person the employer hired to replace the employee, which courts generally don’t like to do.

It's more common to ask for money damages to compensate you for the harm done by your employer’s actions. Depending on the facts of your case, these damages might include:

  • back pay, lost benefits, and out-of-pocket losses you suffered as a result of being wrongfully fired
  • front pay, if reinstatement isn’t an option (to compensate you if you're unlikely to find a job for some period of time into the future)
  • court costs and attorneys' fees
  • damages for pain and suffering (emotional distress caused by the employer’s discriminatory actions), and
  • punitive damages, intended to punish your employer for breaking the law (these damages are only awarded in special circumstances, where the employer acted intentionally or in a particularly egregious way).

Although federal law does not place a cap on lost wages, it does impose a cap on how much you can be awarded for pain and suffering, out-of-pocket losses (such as the costs of looking for a new job), and punitive damages. Depending on the size of your employer, the maximum combined award for these types of damages ranges from $50,000 to $300,000.

Under the FEHA, an employee can be awarded damages for pain and suffering and punitive damages. Unlike federal law, California does not cap the total amount of damages that can be awarded in these categories.

Hiring a Lawyer

If you are considering filing an EEOC or DFEH charge or a lawsuit against your employer, you should talk to an experienced employment lawyer. A lawyer can help you determine whether you have a strong case, what your claims might be worth, and how best to assert your rights. A lawyer can try to settle the case with your employer, attend interviews and mediation sessions, and – of course – represent you in court.

You may be concerned about the cost of hiring a lawyer, especially if you are still out of work. In discrimination cases, however, lawyers generally charge on a contingency basis, which means the lawyer collects fees only if you win your case.

Learn more about hiring a lawyer in a discrimination case, including how lawyers charge and how lawyers decide whether to take a case, at our Asserting your Rights Against Discrimination page. To find a local employment lawyer, check out Nolo’s Lawyer Directory.

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