Ask an Expert: Pregnancy Accommodations

Must we provide an accommodation to an employee with a high-risk pregnancy?

By Amber Clayton, SHRM-SCP June 3, 2022
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Ask an Expert: Pregnancy Accommodations

​When an employee has a high-risk pregnancy, HR professionals frequently have questions about how to handle accommodation requests.

Federal laws that may come into play are the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, an employer is required “to treat an employee temporarily unable to perform the functions of her job because of her pregnancy or a related medical condition in the same manner as it treats other employees similar in their ability or inability to work, whether by providing modified tasks, alternative assignments or fringe benefits such as disability leave,” according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Generally, this means employers can’t discriminate against employees because they are pregnant. For example, companies can’t deny them light-duty work, modified schedules or leaves of absence if the same flexibility is provided to nonpregnant employees.

If an employer and a pregnant employee meet FMLA eligibility criteria, the employee may be able to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave in a 12-month period. The leave may be full time or part time. If the leave is part time, the employee could work a reduced schedule, such as four hours a day, or take time off intermittently, such as every Thursday for medical appointments. However, the FMLA doesn’t require an employer to provide light-duty work.

To be protected under the ADA, an employee must have or be regarded as having a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. A pregnancy alone isn’t a disability. But an employee may have a pregnancy-related impairment, such as preeclampsia or sciatica, which may be covered under the ADA.

There also are some states and localities that offer job protections for pregnant employees beyond what federal law allows. Often, time off under the state plan runs concurrently with leave under the FMLA, and sometimes it provides employees job-protected leave beyond 12 weeks. Employers should check their state and local laws.

When an employee isn’t eligible for accommodations under federal, state or local laws, making accommodations will usually be a matter of company policy and practice—unless there is an employment contract in place or a union presence, in which case other rules may apply.

Remember, it is not necessary for employees to use the word “accommodation” when making a request. They could simply say they need help or time off due to their pregnancy or pregnancy-related condition. When this occurs, the employer should engage in an interactive process to determine which laws and policies apply.  

Amber Clayton, SHRM-SCP, is director of SHRM’s HR Knowledge Center.

Illustration by PavelVinnik/iStock.

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