For women with careers, pregnancy can be a scary time. Not only do you have to worry about how your personal live will inevitably change, but many women also fear how their careers will be affected by pregnancy, too.

Will I lose opportunities at work when I’m pregnant?

Many pregnant women fear that they will be passed over at work because of their pregnancy, however that should never be the case. The Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) prohibits employers from discriminating against pregnant women in employment decisions. This means that an employer cannot make hiring, firing, salary, job assignment, promotions, lay-offs or training decisions based on whether or not someone is pregnant. 

What if I can’t work because of my pregnancy?

Depending on the type of work that you do, pregnancy may prohibit you from being able to do certain job functions. For example, if your job requires you to do heavy lifting, this may become difficult, not to mention dangerous, once you become pregnant. Luckily, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act requires that employers treat pregnant women the same as they would any other temporarily disabled employee. If your employer allows other temporarily disabled employees to take on different job roles or adjust their responsibilities to accommodate their disability, then they are legally required to do so for you, too.

Unfortunately, many pregnancies do not go as planned. As a result of pregnancy complications, some women may have to take time off of work before their maternity leave begins. If you have to leave work for a reason related to your pregnancy, your employer must hold your position the same amount of time that they would hold a disabled or ill individual’s role. While you’re out on a pregnancy-related leave, you must be treated the same as disabled individuals on leave when it comes to accrual of sick and vacation days, too.

Once you recover and are ready to return back to work, your employer cannot tell you to remain out of the office until your baby’s birth. It is your decision (along with your doctor’s, of course) to come back to work, not the employer’s. 

What about maternity leave?

The only federal law that regulates maternity leave is the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) that states employees should be allowed up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave after giving birth. The FMLA applies to all public businesses, and any private businesses with 50 or more employees. Employees who work for an eligible employer and meet the following criteria are legally permitted to the 12 weeks of unpaid leave:

  • The employee has worked 1,250 hours in the past year for the employer.
  • The employee has worked at the employer for at least 12 months, however the months do not have to be consecutive.

Although this required leave of absence is unpaid, many employers may force employees to use their accrued sick or vacation time before resorting to FMLA leave.

The FMLA states that employees have to give their employers at least 30 days notice before taking an unpaid leave. To maintain a positive relationship in the office, it’s always best to let employers know about your pregnancy as soon as it is safe to do so (usually after the first trimester). This will ensure that your superiors have adequate time to plan for your absence and have your work covered while you’re out. Although it may be difficult to give employers an exact date of when your leave will start, it’s best to give them a time frame so they have a general idea.

Pregnant woman should also determine if their state laws offer any additional benefits. For example, California has the Paid Family Leave law which ensures that new mothers are given partial pay for up to six weeks. Although these state laws are not common, many companies throughout the country offer some sort of paid maternity leave, even though they’re not legally required to do so. If you are pregnant or planning on getting pregnant, it’s wise to talk to your Human Resources department about the options available to you.

What happens when I get back to work?

If you do decide to take FMLA, your employer is required to place you back in the exact same job or one that is nearly identical when you return to work. Nearly identical jobs must:

  • Allow you to work similar hours in a location that does not add on significant commute time.
  • Involve the same or similar duties.
  • Have the same level of superiority or authority.
  • Have identical pay and benefits.

However, in some cases, the employer can refuse to reinstate a woman’s job after maternity leave. This situation is known as the key employee exception, and is applied to employees who hold such important positions that their absence causes severe economic damages to the company. If you hold an executive level position within the company, your employer may identify you as a key employee. In this situation, the employer is legally required to notify you that you have been identified as a key employee and provide you with a chance to come back to work and secure your job. If you choose not to come back to work, the employer is allowed to terminate your employment.

What should I do if my rights as a pregnant woman are violated?

If you feel that your employer is violating your rights as a pregnant woman, it’s important to file a complaint with the Department of Labor. To do so, contact your local Wage and Hour Division office and provide your contact and employment information along with details about your complaint. From here, they will be able to launch an investigation into whether or not your employer has violated any laws. Any information that you provide to the Wage and Hour Division office will be shared with your employer so they can respond to the charge. However, there are laws protecting you from retaliation, so you should never fear filing a complaint and defending your rights as a pregnant woman.