Did your Illinois employer fire you because you're pregnant? If so, you may have a case against your former employer for wrongful termination. This article explains your rights as a pregnant employee and what to do if you believe you were wrongfully terminated because of your pregnancy.
Federal and Illinois laws protect pregnant employees from discrimination. They also require employers to provide time off and reasonable accommodations to eligible pregnant employees.
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 Illinois Human Rights Act also prohibits sex discrimination, which includes discrimination based on pregnancy, childbirth, and related medical conditions. Unlike the PDA, the Illinois Human Rights Act applies to all employers, even those with only one employee.
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. (Learn more on the rules for light duty during pregnancy.)
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.)
The Illinois Human Rights Act provides pregnant employees with rights beyond those granted by federal law. Under Illinois law, employers must make reasonable accommodations for employees who have medical restrictions due to pregnancy, childbirth, or a related condition. Unlike the ADA, an employee does not need to have a disability to qualify for a reasonable accommodation under this provision. Possible accommodations include more frequent breaks to rest, use the bathroom, or drink water; private space in which to breast-feed or express breast milk; light duty; seating; time off work; temporary transfer or reassignment to another position; or assistance with manual labor. An employer does not need to provide a reasonable accommodation if it would create undue hardship (prohibitive expense or disruption, in light of the employer’s size, resources, and so on).
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:
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.)
Under the FMLA, you also have the right to continue your health insurance benefits while you’re off work and to be reinstated to your former position when your leave is over.
Many states have their own family and medical leave laws or pregnancy disability laws that provide additional time off. Illinois is not among them, though.
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.
If you believe your employer violated federal or state discrimination laws, such as the PDA, the ADA, or the Illinois Human Rights Act, you’ll need to file a charge of discrimination with a government agency. You may file either with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the agency that interprets and enforces federal workplace discrimination laws, or the Illinois Department of Human Rights (IDHR). (As in many states, the IDHR and the EEOC have a work-sharing agreement, meaning that a charge filed with one agency is also considered filed with the other.) Depending on your claims, you have either 180 days or 300 days to file your charge.
You may not file a lawsuit until you have taken your claims to the EEOC or the IDHR. 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 IDHR 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.
For violations of the FMLA, you can go straight to court without filing anything with a government agency.
If you win your lawsuit, you can ask the court to order your employer to give you your job back (called "reinstatement"). However, this remedy isn’t very common. There's often just too much hostility between the former employee and employer to make this work. Also, if your employer hired someone to take your place, this would require displacing that 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:
While federal law does not place a cap on damages for wage loss, it does limit 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.
The Illinois Human Rights Act does not allow for an award for punitive damages. However, damages for emotional distress and mental suffering are available, and there is no dollar limit on how much a court or jury can award.
If you are considering filing an EEOC or IDHR 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.
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 (typically by taking a percentage of your recovery). And, if you win, you can ask the court to force your employer to pay for your attorneys' fees and costs.
Learn more about hiring a lawyer in a discrimination case, including how lawyers charge and how they 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.