Status Update: Pregnancy Discrimination in California

Discrimination based on pregnancy is illegalThe United States is the only developed country in the world without required paid pregnancy leave. There is the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), but that only mandates unpaid leave for parents who are caring for newborns or newly adopted children. Pregnancy is not covered, and only 12 percent of U.S. employers offer paid family leave.

Twelve states, including California, have passed paid family and medical leave or earned sick days laws. The law in California requires employers to provide up to four months of disability leave for a woman who is disabled due to pregnancy, childbirth or a related medical condition. An individual employer that provides more than four months of leave for any temporary disability must provide an equal amount of leave for this disability.

The U.S. Department of Labor is campaigning for better pregnancy leave policies throughout the United States. The goal of the campaign is to show employers that they, too, benefit from family-friendly policies. According to the campaign's website, offering paid leave provides employers many benefits, including increased worker retention and reduced employee turnover.

Benefits to Employers of Pregnancy Leave

There are societal benefits to paid pregnancy leave as well. These include:

  • Increasing female labor force participation, contributing to economic growth
  • Reduction in need for public assistance when parents are able to continuing working
  • Better outcomes for mothers and babies that include increased birth weight, a reduction in premature births and decreased infant mortality

Many employers in states with paid maternity leave such as California and New Jersey report that they are actually saving money because they do not have to replace employers who resign for pregnancy-related reasons. This goes against the commonly held belief that providing paid maternity leave will negatively affect a company's bottom line.

California's Pregnancy Leave Law

In addition to requiring four months of pregnancy leave, California law also requires employers to:

  • Extend leave beyond four months using accrued sick leave and vacation time. A woman can also use her vacation time to get paid for some of the unpaid time of her leave, even if it is less than four months.
  • Hold a woman's job for at least four months (in addition to the 12 weeks required by the California Family Rights Act)
  • Continue to pay the employer premiums for health insurance that were paid prior to the leave

Provisions such as these are much more complicated in reality, and it is important to consult a California employment lawyer with specific questions about your right to pregnancy leave under California law.

California has other laws that provide for additional unpaid time after a child is born or adopted. It also has required short-term paid disability and six weeks of family leave. These programs do not replace 100 percent of an employee's wages, but compared with other states, California is forward-thinking.

Recent California Pregnancy Discrimination Cases

Despite the existence of these laws designed to support employees and families, pregnant women in California continue to experience discrimination because they are pregnant. AutoZone Stores Inc. was recently fined and ordered to pay significant punitive damages to a woman who was wrongfully fired from a San Diego store for complaining about gender and pregnancy discrimination. She was demoted from her management position after she became pregnant and was fired after she filed a lawsuit challenging the demotion.

An Orange County human resources manager received $538,000 in damages after she was fired during her maternity leave on the grounds that she was emotionally damaged and unable to do her job because her baby was stillborn. A Superior Court jury found that her employer, eGumball, violated laws prohibiting pregnancy discrimination, disability leave, sex discrimination and disability discrimination.

A case still pending was recently filed against Los Angeles-based clothing retailer Nasty Gal. A company restructuring resulted in 10 percent of the workforce being laid off, including all the pregnant employees and a man planning to take paternity leave. How the court will rule in this case is unknown, but the coincidence of laying off all pregnant employees does require investigation.

Pregnancy Discrimination: A National Trend?

These and other cases are part of a national trend. It appears that too many employers still think that motherhood is incompatible with work and treat their female employees accordingly. In 1997, there were more than 3,900 pregnancy discrimination charges filed with federal, state and local employment agencies. In 2013, 5,342 cases were filed. Over the years, loopholes in laws that allowed employers to discriminate against pregnant women have been closed. This should result in the number of pregnancy discrimination cases going down, not up. However, the numbers from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission tell a different story.

The bottom line: Pregnancy discrimination still occurs even though it is against the law in California and nationally. Employers that violate the law should be held liable for their actions.