Many jobs require limited or no accommodation when a worker is pregnant because the work is not physically strenuous. Some jobs, though, present concerns for the pregnant worker almost right off the bat. Police Officer, Firefighter and EMT or Paramedic come to mind immediately, where the physical demands of the jobs can place a pregnancy at risk.
Both the federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) and the state Human Rights Act prohibit discrimination of pregnant employees and require employers to make reasonable accommodations to pregnant workers. The question though for local government employers of police, fire, paramedic and similar workers with physically demanding jobs is how to accommodate an employee who really can’t do the job at all due to pregnancy.
Generally, pregnant workers who are unable to do their job request a temporary light duty assignment. For a brief period of time, Illinois law required that pregnant police officers were entitled to light duty while unable to perform the duties of their position. That was revised in favor of additions to the Human Rights Act which prohibits discrimination based on pregnancy and entitles pregnant workers covered by the Act to reasonable accommodation as required for employees with disabilities, virtually identical to the protections under the PDA.
Most pregnant workers who are restricted from performing one or more essential functions of their job request light duty assignments for the duration of their pregnancy and recovery from childbirth. In analyzing a request like this, an employer should first look to their own policies. If the employer has a light duty policy that applies to any worker with a temporary inability to do their job, it should adhere to the terms of the policy.
If an employer has no light duty policy, then it should analyze whether it has a light duty assignment suitable for the employee for the duration of the pregnancy or for any part of it. Employers should keep in mind that it is not necessary to create work for the employee, but if work that is part of the regular function of the employer that the employee is capable of performing, is available, even for part of the time of incapacity, then the employer should consider the assignment just as it would for any other employee who was temporarily unable to do their regular job due to injury or illness.
What about if an employer has a light duty policy that restricts eligibility for light duty only to employees who suffered on the job injuries? And maybe add to that the fact that actual light duty assignments exist but are denied to the pregnant worker. Is the employer violating the PDA and the Human Rights Act by following its policy that light duty is only available to workers injured on the job?
Recently, a federal court in Alabama ruled that an employer did not violate the PDA when it denied a pregnant EMT a light duty assignment pursuant to its policy that made such assignments available only for on the job injuries. The court held that the PDA does not require an employer to provide special accommodations to its pregnant employees, only that pregnant employees are given the same opportunities and benefits as non-pregnant employees who are similarly limited in their ability to work. If an employee's pregnancy prevents her from fulfilling the duties of her position, her employer is not obligated to treat her any differently than it would treat a non-pregnant employee in the same position.
Federal and state laws prohibit discrimination of pregnant workers, but do not require more favorable treatment. It is lawful to treat workers who were injured on the job differently than those who were not. It is important though that pregnant employees are treated the same as other workers who are temporarily unable to do their jobs due to non-work related injuries or illnesses.
Reasonable accommodation requests can be tricky. It is always wise to check with an experienced labor and employment attorney when a request is made. The labor and employment group at Ancel Glink can guide you through the reasonable accommodation analysis. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org to discuss how we can assist you in any of your labor and employment needs.