The Intersection of Pregnancy and Disability in NJ: When Your Pregnancy or Postnatal Health Situation Indicates a Need for an Accommodation

When you’re a working woman who becomes pregnant, you face many challenges, even if yours is one of the “easiest” pregnancies possible. Those challenges only multiply if your pregnancy comes with complications. Complications may mean that you have special needs, such as requiring more time off from work than you (and perhaps your employer) had originally planned. When complications happen, the law has various protections. Not only can your employer not discriminate against you because of your pregnancy, but your employer also may not discriminate based on your pregnancy-induced disabilities. If your employer does either (or both) of these things, then you may have a legal case under state and/or federal law, so you should contact an experienced New Jersey pregnancy discrimination lawyer about your situation.

T.M. was one of those pregnant women allegedly harmed by workplace discrimination. She applied for a job as an EMS dispatcher. The employer hired her and scheduled a start date. However, five days before that start date, preeclampsia caused T.M.’s doctors to induce her into early labor and deliver her son prematurely.

Preeclampsia is a condition among pregnant women in which they develop hypertension (high blood pressure,) typically after 20 weeks of pregnancy, despite previously having normal blood pressure. It is a common pregnancy complication, occurring in 5-8% of all pregnancies, and occurring at even higher rates among certain communities of color, especially Black and Latina mothers.

For some pregnant women with preeclampsia, their doctors may require them to go on bed rest to lower their blood pressure and delay the need to deliver the child. In other cases, doctors may need to deliver the baby early to protect the mother. In the latter case, the delivery of the child generally alleviates the preeclampsia and the woman returns to full health (and normal blood pressure.)

T.M.’s preeclampsia was one of the latter types and, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, all she needed in terms of accommodation simply was to push off her start date by “several weeks.” Instead, the employer left the new mom a voicemail message withdrawing her offer of employment.

This, the EEOC concluded, amounted to a violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA requires employers to engage their employees in an “interactive process” (a/k/a a good-faith back-and-forth dialogue) to find a reasonable accommodation for the employee’s disability. The employer may only refuse to do so if the employee’s disability renders that person unable to perform one or more of the essential duties of her job (even with an accommodation) or if any possible accommodation would impose an “undue burden” on the employer’s business.

T.M.’s employer didn’t do that dialogue step. Upon learning of T.M.’s need for a disability-related accommodation, the employer simply took an adverse employment action (withdrawal of its offer of employment) unilaterally, with no interactive process.

The employer eventually agreed to settle its case with the EEOC for $77,550. That sum represented “lost wages and other damages,” according to the EEOC’s press release.

‘Pregnancy-Related Impairements’ and Reasonable Accommodations

This case is, as the EEOC expressly stated, a good reminder that anti-discrimination law does not distinguish between pregnancy-related disabilities and other disabilities. As the director of the EEOC’s New York district office put it, “This case underscores that pregnancy-related disabilities are covered by the ADA… The ADA affords women with pregnancy-related impairments the same right to reasonable accommodation as other employees who suffer with non-pregnancy-related disabilities.”

Preeclampsia is not the only pregnancy complication that may qualify as a disability under the ADA and/or the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination. Conditions common to pregnancy (beyond preeclampsia) like gestational diabetes, sciatica, and extreme nausea may entitle you to request (and receive) an accommodation.

Additionally, it is important to keep in mind that the range of pregnancy-related disabilities that can qualify you to seek and obtain an accommodation is not limited solely to physical disabilities, nor is it limited to those things occurring during the pregnancy itself. Conditions occurring after the baby’s delivery — such as postpartum depression or postpartum psychosis — can also be disabilities that necessitate accommodations and trigger the employer’s obligation to engage in the interactive process.

When you are pregnant (or have just delivered a new baby,) you have a lot going on in your life. One thing that shouldn’t be “on your plate” — but too often happens — is your employer illegally failing to accommodate your pregnancy or postpartum circumstances as required by the law. If that’s you, don’t wait to take action. Get in touch with the experienced New Jersey disability discrimination attorneys at Phillips & Associates to find out what you can do. Contact us online or at (866) 229-9441 today to set up a free and confidential consultation and find out how we can help you protect yourself and your family.

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