Have you been fired from your Pennsylvania job because you are pregnant? If so, you may have a wrongful termination case against your former employer. This article covers your rights under federal and Pennsylvania law as a pregnant employee, including steps you can take if you believe you were wrongfully terminated because of your pregnancy.
Federal and state laws protect pregnant employees from discrimination. They may also require employers to give time off and reasonable accommodations to pregnant employees.
Under the federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA), employers with 15 or more employees may not discriminate based on pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions. For example, employers may not fire or discipline an employee because she becomes pregnant, refuse to hire a pregnant applicant, or treat a pregnant employee differently than employees who are temporarily disabled by other health conditions.
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 giving birth.
Pennsylvania’s Human Rights Act also prohibits sex discrimination, which includes discrimination based on pregnancy, childbirth, and related medical conditions. Like the PDA, Pennsylvania law prohibits discrimination against pregnant applicants and employees. This includes treating employees who are temporarily disabled by pregnancy worse than all other employees with temporary disabilities. However, the Pennsylvania Human Rights Act covers a broader set of employers: those with four or more employees.
Under the PDA and Pennsylvania law, employers cannot single out pregnant employees for worse treatment than employees who are temporarily disabled for other reasons. For example, if your employer regularly provides light duty or other job modifications to employees who are injured on and off the job, it will likely have to do the same for you. (Learn more on the rules for light duty during pregnancy.)
However, employers are not required to provide pregnant employees with preferential treatment. This means that your employer doesn’t have to create a light duty position for you if it doesn’t do so for other employees with temporary disabilities. (Note, though, that some cities in Pennsylvania have laws requiring employers to accommodate pregnant employees even if they don't accommodate others. For example, Philadelphia has such a law.)
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 accompany 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.)
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 on eligibility requirements, 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 laws providing additional time off, including state family and medical leave laws and pregnancy disability laws. Pennsylvania, however, does not have these types of laws.
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 Pennsylvania Human Relations 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 federal agency that interprets and enforces workplace discrimination laws, or the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission (PHRC). (As is the case in many states, the PHRC and the EEOC have a work-sharing agreement, meaning that a charge filed with one agency is also considered filed with the other. This preserves your right to later bring a lawsuit based on federal claims, state claims, or both.) 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 PHRC. 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 PHRC to issue you a right-to-sue letter: a document that confirms that you have met your obligation to file a charge and that you may now to take your case to court. But, you have to act quickly, especially if you plan to bring federal claims. Once the letter is issued, you will have only 90 days to file a lawsuit based on federal law (for example, violations of the PDA or ADA). For state claims of discrimination, you have two years after the letter is issued to file suit.
If you claim that your employer violated 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. 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.
More commonly, employees can receive money damages to compensate them for the harm done by their employers' actions. Depending on the facts of your case, these damages might include:
While there's no cap on lost wages under federal law, there are 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 ranges from $50,000 to $300,000.
If your claims are based on Pennsylvania law, no punitive damages can be awarded. However, damages for emotional distress and out-of-pocket losses are not capped; the amount you can be awarded in these categories of damages depends only on the harm you suffered.
If you are considering filing an EEOC or PHRC 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. And, because laws prohibiting discrimination allow you to collect attorneys' fees and costs, much 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.