Wrongfully Terminated for Being Pregnant in New Jersey

New Jersey has several laws that protect pregnant employees.

Did your New Jersey 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 New Jersey laws protect pregnant employees from discrimination. They also require employers to provide time off and reasonable accommodations to eligible pregnant employees.

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 mothers when making job decisions.

The New Jersey Law Against Discrimination also prohibits discrimination on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, and related medical conditions. Unlike the PDA, the New Jersey law applies to all employers, regardless of size.

Reasonable Accommodations for Pregnancy

Under the PDA, a pregnant employee is entitled to the same accommodations her employer provides 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 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.)

New Jersey law goes beyond the federal laws to provide additional rights to pregnant workers. All pregnant employees—even those with normal pregnancies—are entitled to reasonable accommodations when they have medical restrictions due to pregnancy, childbirth, or a related condition. Such accommodations might include more frequent breaks to use the restroom, drink water, or rest; assistance with manual labor (such as lifting); modified work schedules; transfer or reassignment to another position; or job restructuring. The employer does not have to provide a reasonable accommodation if it would pose an undue hardship: significant burden or expense, given the size, structure, and resources of the employer.

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.)

Under the New Jersey Family Leave Act, eligible employees may take up to 12 weeks off in any 24-month period to care for a newly born or adopted child (among other reasons). This means that an employee eligible for leave under both state and federal law could use the FMLA for the time she is unable to work due to pregnancy and childbirth; she would then still have 12 full weeks of time off to use for parental leave.

State Disability Benefits

Unlike most other states, New Jersey 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 New Jersey Family Leave Act.

Filing an Administrative Charge of Discrimination

If you believe your employer violated federal discrimination laws, such as the PDA or ADA, you’ll need to file a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal agency that interprets and enforces workplace discrimination laws. You may, but are not required to, file a charge of discrimination with the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights (DCR) for violations of state law. Depending on your claims, you have either 180 or 300 days to file your charge.

If you want to file a lawsuit based on your federal claims right away, you can ask the EEOC 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.

If you want to file a lawsuit under New Jersey Law Against Discrimination, you must file within two years of the events that you allege were discriminatory. However, it's usually best to file your lawsuit right away, so that evidence and testimony are still readily available.

If you claim that your employer violated the FMLA or the New Jersey Family Leave 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).

While federal law does not place a cap on lost wages, it does impose caps 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 New Jersey Law Against Discrimination, an employee can be awarded damages for pain and suffering and punitive damages. Unlike federal law, New Jersey 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 New Jersey DCR 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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