If you were fired from your job in North Carolina because of your pregnancy, you may have a wrongful termination case against your employer. It’s illegal for most employers to fire an employee because she is pregnant, to deny a pregnant employee time off under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), or to refuse to provide reasonable accommodations that are required by law.
Below, we explain your rights as a pregnant employee and what to do if you believe you were wrongfully terminated because of your pregnancy.
Federal and state laws prohibit discrimination based on pregnancy and, in some cases, require employers to provide leave and reasonable accommodation to pregnant employees.
Under the federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA), employers with 15 or more employees may not discriminate based on pregnancy, childbirth, and related medical conditions. Employers may not fire or discipline an employee because she becomes pregnant, refuse to hire an applicant who is pregnant, or treat a pregnant employee differently from other employees with the same physical limitations.
The PDA also prohibits employers from relying on stereotypes about pregnant women and new mothers in making job decisions. For example, an employer may not assume that a pregnant employee will be unable to do her job while pregnant or that she will not return to work after having a child.
Unlike most other states, North Carolina does not have a law that prohibits pregnancy discrimination. However, North Carolina employers must still comply with the antidiscrimination provisions of the PDA.
Under the PDA, a pregnant employee is entitled to the same accommodations her employer provides to other employees who are temporarily disabled by other health conditions. For example, if your employer provides light duty to all employees who are injured on the job or off the job, it would be discriminatory not to make the same benefits available to pregnant employees with work restrictions. (Learn more on the rules for light duty during pregnancy.)
While employers must treat pregnant women the same as other employees who are temporarily disabled, they don't have to provide pregnant employees with preferential treatment. In other words, if your employer doesn’t offer light duty to anyone, it doesn’t have to offer it to you either.
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 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 preeclampsia or gestational diabetes, you may be entitled to the protections of the ADA. (For more on the ADA, see our Disability Discrimination page.)
While some states require employers to accommodate all pregnant employees—even those with normal pregnancies—North Carolina is not one of them.
Pregnant employees 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), which 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 other eligibility requirements, see Taking Family and Medical Leave.)
Although FMLA leave is unpaid, you may be eligible to use your paid leave during this time off. The FMLA also provides other rights, including 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 through.
Many states have their own laws providing additional time off to pregnant employees, such as state family and medical leave laws and pregnancy disability laws. North Carolina does not have either of these laws, however.
If you lost your job because you’re pregnant, because you couldn’t perform your regular job duties, or because you requested or took FMLA leave, you may have a claim against your employer for wrongful termination.
If you believe your employer violated federal discrimination laws, such as the PDA or the ADA, you’ll need to file a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The EEOC is the federal agency that interprets and enforces workplace discrimination laws. (Because North Carolina law doesn’t prohibit pregnancy discrimination, there’s no need to file a charge with the state’s Employment Discrimination Bureau.)
You may not file a lawsuit until you have taken your claims to the EEOC. The EEOC 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, 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 and that you may now to take your case to court. But make sure you are ready to roll before you make this request: 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 a claim with a government agency.
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.
What's more common is 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 there are no caps on lost wages, there are upper limits 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. The maximum combined award for these types of damages ranges from $50,000 to $300,000, depending on the size of your employer.
If you are considering filing an EEOC 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 EEOC interviews and mediation sessions, and—of course—represent you in court.
Especially if you are still out of work, you may be concerned about the cost of hiring a lawyer. In discrimination cases, however, many lawyers charge on a contingency basis, which means the lawyer collects fees only if you win your case. And, because laws prohibiting discrimination may allow you to collect attorneys' fees and costs if you win, most or all of this money will come from your former employer, not from your damages award.
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.