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People's Law Guide


Pregnancy Discrimination: Legal Recourse from Multiple Laws



      Elizabeth Richardson went on maternity leave expecting to return to her job as controller of Weight Watchers of Palm Beach County. After all, The Family & Medical Leave Act, also known by the abbreviation “FMLA”,  permits those working for mid-to-large sized employers to take unpaid maternity and paternity leave, and even take time-off to care for serious medical concerns affecting themselves or immediate family members.  The Pregnancy Discrimination Act, another federal law, also provides important workplace protections.  More information on this law appears later in this article.

Instead of welcoming the new mother back, her employer fired her.

      Although FMLA requires that certain employers reinstate workers who take leave to care for newborn children or for health reasons,  organizations fail to comply with the law.  When surveying 300 employers large enough to be regulated by FMLA, the University of California learned that many were ignoring the most fundamental requirements of this Federal law. Nine percent of the employers didn't guarantee job reinstatement and 20% failed to inform workers about the law.

      When hearing from 275 persons in need of FMLA information, 9to5, the National Association of Working Women, learned 63% were provided with  inaccurate information by their employers. The Federal government also acknowledges that large numbers of employers are violating the law. The U.S. Department of Labor reports that of the FMLA complaints it investigated, 60% involve employer violations.

FMLA Complaints By Type

Worker not reinstated                                     65%
Worker not granted leave                                21%
Worker denied health insurance benefits             8% 
Interfered with / discriminated against               5%
when requesting FMLA leave

Source: U.S. Dept. of Labor

      Nearly all persons employed by private employers with 50 or more people within a 75 mile radius are given FMLA rights, so long as they have been on the job for 12 or more months and have worked no fewer than 1,250 hours during the prior year. Persons working for certain governmental employers are also covered by the law.

      When time away from work is needed to care for their own serious medical concerns or those of immediate family members, FMLA-protected  workers are permitted to take up to 12-weeks of unpaid leave. Fathers and mothers are also permitted to take time-off to care for healthy newborn infants. Upon returning to work, employees must be reinstated to their positions.

      Employers who normally pay for workers' health insurance benefits, fully or partly, must continue doing so on the same basis during the leave period. Workers also have the flexibility of utilizing time-off in small increments, such as taking leave every Friday afternoon to receive medical care or to assist in caring for ill family members. Employers may significantly alter job responsibilities for those workers taking incremental leave.

      It is also illegal to retaliate against workers exercising leave rights. Except in unforeseeable instances, workers are required to give 30 days advance notice of leave requirements. Employers are permitted to obtain verification of medical need. High ranking executives can be excluded from FMLA benefits when their employers meet strict notification rules and demonstrate economic hardships.

 FMLA Lets You Care For:
* Yourself
* Your Spouse
* Parents
    (including step & foster)
* Minor Children
    (including step & foster)
* Adult Sons & Daughters
    (if incapable of self-care)

      Workers wrongly denied FMLA benefits can sue their employers for lost wages and benefits, as well as the costs of providing care to ill relatives during the disputed time periods. When winning at trial, judges must award workers double their actual financial damages, except where employers made good faith violations. Courts may also require employers to rehire or promote workers and pay for fees and costs of workers' lawsuits.

      The Pregnancy Discrimination Act, provides further legal rights to all governmental employees and those private sector firms employing as few as 15 workers. It bans job bias on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth or related medical condition.  The law forbids employers to treat pregnant women differently than other workers having similar abilities or inabilities to work.  The law does not require employers to treat pregnant workers better than other employees.

      The Pregnancy Discrimination Act provides protections even to those workers not having 12 months seniority, a threshold required for FMLA coverage.  Where FMLA only permits recovery for economic damages, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act permits employees to seek  money for their emotional pain and suffering and in certain circumstances, for punitive damages.

      Of course, workers are always able to seek settlements prior to trial. That's what Elizabeth Richardson did in her case against Weight Watchers of Palm Beach County. Although her former employer denies violating FMLA and would not disclose any financial terms, it did agree to an out-of-court settlement.

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