Family, Kids & Relationships

Navigating a pregnancy in the workplace: Know your rights

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Navigating a pregnancy in the workplace can be fraught — and there are lots of variables at play that can impact your experience. The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, which aims to secure protections and accommodations for pregnant people in the workplace, was first introduced in Congress last year and currently sits stalled out in the Senate despite parents’ and advocates’ collective efforts to move the legislation forward. 

Without federally mandated protections, it’s hard to know what rights and benefits you might be entitled to, along with how to handle the physical and interpersonal aspects of being pregnant at work. This guide will walk you through the steps you can take to manage your pregnancy at work successfully.

Managing the physical aspects of pregnancy at work

Most people are able to keep working right up until their due dates, barring any complications or particularly physically strenuous work. If your job involves lots of movement, heavy lifting, or if you work with any hazardous materials, you’ll need to check in with your doctor about their specific recommendations for your work schedule and accommodations.

If you continue to work through your pregnancy, it’s important to rest and take breaks when possible — so if you usually spend most of the day on your feet, try to sit whenever you can, and if you typically spend your day sitting at a desk, take frequent breaks to walk around and get some gentle movement in when you have the opportunity. 

Many expecting parents will experience morning sickness early in their pregnancy, so it might be helpful to pack a kit for work with mouthwash, toothpaste, crackers, and any anti-nausea medication your doctor may prescribe. Well-intentioned coworkers may ask if you’re ok, so think about how much you’d like to share ahead of time. 

If there are any physically strenuous aspects of your work that you’re able to trade off with someone else during your pregnancy, ask if that’s a possibility. Don’t be shy about asking for the accommodations you need for a safe and comfortable pregnancy in the workplace. You and your baby’s health comes above all else. 

Managing the interpersonal aspects of pregnancy at work

Because of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, employers with over 15 employees can’t demote, terminate, or retaliate against an employee because of pregnancy. Many people choose to wait until shortly after the first trimester to tell their managers that they’re pregnant. Before you initiate that conversation, think about the accommodations you may need. Employers are required to provide you with the same types of support other workers would be entitled to who had a similar reduced ability to work (for example, allowing you to sit during your shift, letting you telecommute, allowing snacks at your workstation, or providing tools to make physically demanding tasks easier). However, if a company doesn’t provide special accommodations for other workers, they are generally not obliged to do so for pregnant employees. Thirty-one states, including the District of Columbia, and four cities have passed their own laws requiring certain employers to provide reasonable accommodations for pregnant workers.

Once you let your employer know about your timeline and the supports you’ll need during and after your pregnancy, check in with your company’s human resources department or management about their parental leave policy. If possible, you’ll want to sprinkle some days off throughout your pregnancy to make time for doctor’s appointments and those all-important self-care days. But, depending on your employer’s vacation and leave policies, you might decide to save as much time off as possible for after the baby comes.

Once you’ve decided to share the news with a wider circle of coworkers, you may want to check in more intentionally with any other pregnant employees or parents of young kids. This network can be a vital source of advice and support during and after your pregnancy. 

Understanding your rights

Discrimination due to pregnancy in the workplace is illegal thanks to the Pregnancy Discrimination Act. If you feel that you’re being treated unfairly in any aspect of your employment (hiring, promotions, benefits, etc.) because of your pregnancy, you can file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. 

Another law you should be familiar with is the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which guarantees new parents (including foster and adoptive parents) 12 weeks of leave (unpaid or paid, depending on the employer’s policy) that may be taken for care of the new baby. To be eligible, the employee must have worked for the employer for 12 months prior to taking the leave. Very small businesses may be exempt from this law. 

On top of FMLA and any paid leave benefits from your employer, pregnant people can qualify for temporary disability with a letter from their medical provider which can help you extend your time off during and after your pregnancy. Due to the Americans with Disabilities Act, an employer that allows temporarily disabled employees to take disability leave must also allow an employee who is temporarily disabled due to pregnancy to do the same.

Once your baby has arrived, the Fair Labor Standards Act gives you the right to pump breastmilk in the workplace. Consult with nonprofits such as A Better Balance and Planned Parenthood for help navigating your specific rights and protections at your job. 

Mckenna Saady is a staff writer and digital content lead for ParentsTogether. Before working for nonprofits such as the Human Rights Campaign and United Way, Mckenna spent nearly a decade as a child care provider and Pre-K teacher. Originally from Richmond, VA, she now lives in Philadelphia and writes poetry, fiction, and children’s literature in her spare time.