How the Pregnancy Discrimination Act and Americans With Disabilities Act Interact and Affect Pregnant Employees

ADA, Disability Rights, Pregnancy Discrimination

Are you a pregnant employee who is being treated differently at work because you’re pregnant? Or maybe you’ve had complications with your pregnancy such that it makes it difficult or impossible to continue working without your employer making accommodations for your condition?

There are laws that deal with these situations. However, understanding them can be confusing. This blog will examine the following two laws and how they interact to affect pregnant employees: the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) and the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 (PDA).

The PDA and the ADA

pregBasically, the PDA tells employers not to discriminate against employees because of their pregnancy, childbirth, or a related medical condition. In essence, the PDA is an anti-discrimination law.

The ADA is also an anti-discrimination law, but those in the protected class are those who are disabled. Additionally, the ADA mandates that certain employers provide reasonable accommodations to employees with disabilities; the PDA doesn’t have such a requirement. Reasonable accommodations are changes an employer makes for certain employees suffering from limitations (such as a disability) as long those changes are not significantly difficult or expensive to implement.

So how are the PDA and ADA related within the context of pregnant employees? They both prohibit discrimination based on pregnancy or disability. However, when one applies, the other one may not. When might this happen? Let’s look at two possible scenarios.

In the first scenario, an employee informs her boss that she is pregnant. Believing this pregnant employee will be a nuisance, the boss fires her. This will implicate the PDA but not the ADA. This is because the woman was discriminated against because she was pregnant, not because she was disabled.

In a second scenario, a pregnant employee suffers from pregnancy complications. The complications are severe enough such that for her to continue working, her employer must make reasonable accommodations for her. Instead of making those accommodations, the employer decides to fire her.

In this second scenario, the woman will have a cause of action under the ADA, not the PDA (depending on the other facts in this hypothetical, she may also have a cause of action under the PDA, but her stronger argument will be under the ADA). This is because while a normal, uneventful pregnancy is not considered a disability, pregnancy complications can be.

Under the ADA, a disability is “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.” The ADA specifically designates reproductive functions as a “major life activity.” So, as long as the woman can prove her pregnancy complication was a major life activity and she was fired because of it, she will have a good chance of successfully suing her employer for discrimination under the ADA.

For a real-life example of a pregnant employee who was discriminated against because of her pregnancy complications, see our previous blog post titled “Pregnant Attorney Wins $92,000 From Public Utility for Pregnancy Discrimination.”

Young v. United Parcel Service, Inc.

To further complicate the difference between the PDA and the ADA with respect to discrimination against pregnant employees, the U.S. Supreme Court recently held in Young that an employer had to accommodate a pregnant employee, even if she wasn’t considered disabled under the ADA. An exception to this ruling is when the employer has a good, nondiscriminatory reason for treating the pregnant woman differently.

As one can see, figuring out exactly how a pregnant employee can be treated under the PDA, ADA, and Young can be confusing. To provide more complete protections to pregnant employees (and reduce confusion as well), legislation called the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (PWFA) is pending in Congress.


pregdeskAs currently drafted, the PWFA would not only make it illegal for employers to discriminate against employees on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, or a related medical condition, but it would also require that employers provide reasonable accommodations to employees suffering from limitations related to childbirth, pregnancy, or similar medical conditions. An exception to this requirement is if the reasonable accommodations are significantly difficult or expensive to implement.

The PWFA also prohibits employers from punishing employees for requesting reasonable accommodations due to pregnancy limitations or requiring employees to take paid or unpaid leave in place of providing reasonable accommodations.

How does the PWFA fit in with the PDA and ADA? It goes further than the ADA in that it requires reasonable accommodations of pregnant employees who need it, regardless of whether the pregnant employee is considered disabled. It goes further than the PDA in that it mandates employers to accommodate pregnant employees, even if those accommodations aren’t offered to other non-pregnant employees.

For additional information as to the PWFA and its status in Congress, please visit the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act page.

Summing It Up

Both the PDA and ADA prohibit discrimination. The PDA deals with discrimination based on pregnancy, childbirth, and related medical conditions. The ADA deals with discrimination based on disability.

The ADA can come into play with discrimination against pregnant employees, as long as the discrimination is based on a pregnancy-related disability and not the pregnancy itself.

Young v. UPS attempts to find a middle ground between the PDA and ADA by requiring employers to accommodate pregnant employees, even if they aren’t considered disabled by the ADA. This is as long as the employer doesn’t otherwise have a good, nondiscriminatory reason for not accommodating pregnant employees.

The PWFA is currently under consideration by Congress and requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations for limitations faced by pregnant employees, even if the pregnancy is complication-free or the employee is not disabled.