There are more than 4 million pregnant women in the United States every year, and a majority of these women work.
Fifty-six percent of women work full-time and 10% work part-time during pregnancy, with 82% working until they are within one month of their due date. (See: “Yes there really are more pregnant women at the office,” from The Atlantic.)
Unless you’re an employment lawyer or you’ve had a problem in your workplace, you probably haven’t given much thought to your rights at work.
Learning about workplace legal protections before you have a problem is the best way to ensure you can continue to work safely throughout your pregnancy, take the time off you need, and manage your family responsibilities when you return to work.
As a lawyer and advocate for pregnant women, I think a lot about how to empower working mothers.
Here are my 8 tips for pregnant women in the workplace—
1. Know your rights
Look at your employee manual and learn about your rights. Don’t count on your boss or human resources person. Some of the laws are complicated and often turn on specific details about your individual situation.
Even well-intentioned human resources professionals don’t always know and understand the applicable laws, and no one is going to be as informed as you are about your particular situation.
2. Tell your boss you’re pregnant
In writing. No, you don’t have to announce your pregnancy by certified mail, but once you do tell your boss the exciting news, it’s a good idea to follow up with an email. If you’re suddenly being treated differently at work, it’s important to be able to show that your employer knew you were pregnant.
If you’re having issues early in your pregnancy, you may have to tell your boss before you’re even ready to tell your mother-in-law. For example, if severe morning sickness makes it difficult for you to get to work on time, you may be protected under a number of different laws and may be entitled to time off, but you have to notify your employer.
3. Think about leave early and often
Review your employer’s policies about leave, and talk with your supervisor or HR contact well before you plan to be out—and at least 30 days before your due date. Find out if you qualify for FMLA leave, and be sure to check if your state has a leave law that may apply to you.
Your partner should talk with his or her employer about leave too. The FMLA and many company policies provide not only for time to recover from childbirth, but also for time to bond with a new baby, which applies to partners as well.
Oh, and this leave provided by federal law is UNPAID. If you think it is ridiculous that the U.S. shares this dubious distinction with Papua New Guinea and Oman, get involved in efforts to pass paid leave laws so working parents can take care of their health and family needs without jeopardizing their economic security.
4. If you need accommodations
...first have a discussion with your doctor/midwife and then have a constructive conversation with your boss. If you get a doctor’s note saying “Pregnant. Light duty.” this is probably not going to help you, and may actually cause you problems. Help your doctor by describing the specific things you are having difficulty doing.
Do your homework about what kinds of accommodations would make it possible for you to continue to work safely. The note from your doctor should be specific about what types of accommodations would work for you.
When you speak with your boss about what you need, be prepared to offer options and have a constructive dialogue to come up with a solution. Remind your boss that this is temporary!
In general, women who have pregnancy complications or who work in a job where other workers with limitations are accommodated are entitled to accommodations, but the law is complicated.
In some states, it’s simple: Employers are required to provide accommodations. If you think all pregnant workers should have these kinds of protections, get involved in local and national campaigns to protect all pregnant workers!
5. Notice how others are treated
In the law, discrimination means that you are being treated worse than co-workers who are otherwise like you, except not pregnant. If you sense that you are being discriminated against, pay attention to and make note of the way non-pregnant employees are being treated.
Don’t be paranoid, but don’t be dismissive either. Lots of little incidents that don’t quite feel right can amount to a pattern.
6. If you think you’re being treated unfairly, report it. In writing.
You don’t have to say, “I think you’re violating the Pregnancy Discrimination Act,” but you do have to make it clear that you are being treated worse in some way because of your pregnancy.
7. Be a pumping pioneer
Federal law requires that hourly employees be provided with a private, sanitary (i.e., not a bathroom) place and time to pump. Some state laws offer additional protections.
Just because, according to your supervisor, pumping in the broom closet along with the cleaning chemicals was “fine” for all the pumping employees who went before you, it doesn’t have to be “fine” for you.
You can stand up for yourself and politely point out to your boss why a broom closet may not be appropriate, and suggest some better spaces. Chances are you will end up with a better situation and pave the way for pumping moms who follow you.
8. Get help
If things are getting bad, consult a lawyer. Don’t wait until you get fired or are forced to quit. If you can’t afford to pay for legal help, there are organizations that have hotlines to provide pro se legal assistance: Center for WorkLife Law; A Better Balance.
If you work in the Washington, DC area, First Shift Justice Project offers individual consultations.
As an advocate and a mom, my hope is that we are moving toward a time when all pregnant women will be treated fairly in the workplace.
Right now, the reality is that it’s important for mamas to know their rights, and to be willing to stand up for them. This is a good first step in a lifetime of advocating for and setting an example for your little one.