The Americans with Disabilities Act Turns 25 and Now Offers Some Protections Against Pregnancy Discrimination

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990, 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq., has brought significant changes in the 25 years since it became law. It requires wheelchair ramps and other accommodations in public buildings and other locations, and it protects employees of covered employers from discrimination on the basis of disabilities. It also requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to disabled employees. For most of the ADA’s history, pregnancy has not been considered a “disability” within the statute’s meaning. The Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) of 1978 amended Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to prohibit pregnancy discrimination, but it does not expressly require reasonable accommodations for pregnant workers or those who recently gave birth. A 2008 law amending the ADA expanded the criteria for disabilities and impairments, and opened the door to certain pregnancy-related conditions qualifying for ADA protection.

Title I of the ADA prohibits discrimination against disabled employees. It also requires reasonable accommodations, defined to include modifications to an employee’s job duties or work schedule, assignment to a different position, or use of specialized equipment appropriate to the individual impairment. 42 U.S.C. § 12111(9). Title II prohibits disability discrimination in government buildings and services, including public transportation. Title III applies to “public accommodations” in private businesses that serve the public, such as hotels, restaurants, and stores. Finally, Title IV requires telecommunications companies to provide access to hearing- and speech-impaired customers.

The ADA primarily defines a “disability” as “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.” 42 U.S.C. § 12102(1)(A). Disputes may arise as to whether a condition is an “impairment,” whether it “substantially limits” a person, and whether the limitation is a “major life activity.” The ADA also allows claims for discrimination based on “perceived” impairments, or for “being regarded as having such an impairment.” 42 U.S.C. §§ 12102(1)(C), (3).

Courts have generally held that pregnancy is not a disability under the ADA and that the ADA therefore does not require reasonable accommodations for pregnant workers. These accommodations might include extra restroom breaks, relocation to a workstation near a restroom, lifting restrictions, or assignment to a position that is primarily sedentary. Workers who have recently given birth might need breaks to pump breast milk, along with facilities in which to do so. The U.S. Supreme Court allowed the possibility of a reasonable accommodation claim under the PDA in Young v. United Parcel Service, 575 U.S. ___ (2015), but the ADA’s protections are less clear.

The ADA Amendments Act of 2008 (ADAAA) modified the criteria for determining whether something is a disability under the ADA. The law was expressly intended to provide “broad coverage” in defining disabilities. 29 C.F.R. § 1630.1(c)(4). The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) revised its guidelines on pregnancy discrimination in 2015 for the first time since the early 1980s, in part to reflect changes made by Young and the ADAAA. Multiple courts have held that conditions related to pregnancy may be covered by the ADA, even if pregnancy itself is not. At least one court made a finding like this based on the law prior to the ADAAA taking effect. Spees v. James Marine, Inc., 617 F.3d 380 (6th Cir. 2010).

The pregnancy discrimination attorneys at Phillips & Associates advocate for employees and job seekers in the greater New York City area. Contact us today, online or at (212) 248-7431, to schedule a free and confidential consultation with an experienced and skilled advocate for employees’ rights.

More Blog Posts:

Woman Whose Employer Denied Her Request for Light Duty During Pregnancy May Continue Her Discrimination Lawsuit, Supreme Court Rules, New York Employment Attorney Blog, April 15, 2015

Supreme Court Will Consider Whether Pregnancy Discrimination Act Requires Reasonable Accommodations for Pregnant Employees, New York Employment Attorney Blog, September 24, 2014

State Laws, Proposed Federal Law Require Reasonable Accommodations for Pregnant Employees, New York Employment Attorney Blog, August 14, 2014

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