U.S. Congress Protects Pregnant Employees Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Pregnancy Discrimination Act expanded employee benefit provisions, clarified the need for nondiscriminatory fetal protection policies, and led to state and federal laws mandating parental leave.

Summary of Event

The passage of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) in 1978 represented the first attempt by the U.S. government to expand rights and protections for pregnant workers. The PDA, which is an amendment to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964[Title 07 of the Civil Rights Act of 1964] Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination in employment based on pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions. Although women are protected by the act against such practices as being fired or being refused a job or promotion because of pregnancy, the major impact of the PDA relates to employment benefit policies. Pregnancy Discrimination Act (1978) Employment;gender discrimination Women;employment Reproductive rights Gender discrimination [kw]U.S. Congress Protects Pregnant Employees (Oct. 31, 1978) [kw]Congress Protects Pregnant Employees, U.S. (Oct. 31, 1978) [kw]Pregnant Employees, U.S. Congress Protects (Oct. 31, 1978) [kw]Employees, U.S. Congress Protects Pregnant (Oct. 31, 1978) Pregnancy Discrimination Act (1978) Employment;gender discrimination Women;employment Reproductive rights Gender discrimination [g]North America;Oct. 31, 1978: U.S. Congress Protects Pregnant Employees[03410] [g]United States;Oct. 31, 1978: U.S. Congress Protects Pregnant Employees[03410] [c]Business and labor;Oct. 31, 1978: U.S. Congress Protects Pregnant Employees[03410] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Oct. 31, 1978: U.S. Congress Protects Pregnant Employees[03410] [c]Women’s issues;Oct. 31, 1978: U.S. Congress Protects Pregnant Employees[03410] Ross, Susan C. Williams, Wendy

The PDA requires employers with fifteen or more employees to provide the same benefits for pregnancy-related conditions as they provide for other medical conditions. For example, a woman unable to work for pregnancy-related reasons is entitled to disability benefits or sick leave on the same basis as an employee unable to work because of physical injuries from an accident. If a firm allows salary continuation for victims of heart attacks, it must do so for pregnant workers as well. It would be illegal, on one hand, to allow eight weeks of unpaid leave for cancer treatment but, on the other hand, to limit maternity leave to four weeks. If employees are entitled to get their jobs back after a leave for surgery or illness, so are women who have been unable to work because of pregnancy. In addition, any health insurance coverage provided must cover expenses of pregnancy-related conditions on the same basis as expenses for other medical conditions. In essence, employers may not differentiate between pregnancy and illness.

Changes in the legal treatment of pregnancy discrimination in the workforce have their roots in action begun in the 1960’s concerning sex discrimination. The most comprehensive federal law dealing with sex discrimination is Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VII prohibits discrimination in employment decisions based on race, religion, color, sex, or national origin. Although discrimination in all aspects of employment on the basis of sex was banned, Title VII did not address whether discrimination based on pregnancy was a form of sex discrimination.

Congress established an enforcement agency, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), to administer and interpret Title VII’s provisions. Immediately after the passage of Title VII, the EEOC took the position that denying benefits to pregnant employees would not be discriminatory. Continued congressional debate concerning protection against sex discrimination brought about a reversal of that opinion. In 1972, the EEOC issued its guidelines on discrimination because of sex, which state that work disabilities resulting from pregnancy or pregnancy-related illness are temporary disabilities, and that leave, medical, disability, seniority, and reinstatement rights comparable to those provided to nonpregnant employees must be provided to pregnant employees or those with pregnancy-related disabilities.

Following the issuance of the EEOC guidelines, many states passed legislation requiring employers to offer coverage for pregnancy-related disabilities comparable to that offered for other disabilities. Lower courts consistently ruled that denying benefits to pregnant women that were available to nonpregnant employees violated Title VII. Despite the EEOC guidelines and lower court rulings, many employers tended to treat pregnancy differently from other medical conditions. Frequently, pregnant workers were not allowed to use disability plans, and other benefits such as seniority rights and medical insurance were often discontinued during unpaid maternity leaves. Female employees challenged such policies and charged that they constituted a form of sex discrimination in employment under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.

Two cases that reached the U.S. Supreme Court were the catalysts for congressional debate and passage of the PDA. In 1976, the Court held in General Electric Company v. Gilbert General Electric Company v. Gilbert> (1976) that employers could exclude pregnancy-related disabilities without creating sex discrimination. The plaintiff in the case had applied for benefits, under the company’s temporary disability plan, for pregnancy-related complications while she was on maternity leave. The firm refused her claim because she was on maternity leave. She sued under Title VII, and the lower courts ruled in her favor. The Supreme Court, however, held that the denial of disability benefits for a pregnancy-related condition did not constitute discrimination. The Court concluded that men and women were covered for the same risks except for pregnancy, and the exclusion of a risk affecting only women did not constitute discrimination based on sex. One year later, in Nashville Gas Company v. Satty, Nashville Gas Company v. Satty (1977) the Supreme Court ruled that the denial of sick-leave pay to pregnant employees was not a violation of Title VII.

The reaction to these two cases was immediate and intense. A coalition of women’s organizations, civil rights organizations, and labor unions formed in support of legislative reform. Wendy Williams, an attorney who coauthored the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, commented at congressional hearings that the Gilbert decision reflected an attitude that women are marginal, temporary workers. To eliminate employers’ use of women’s role as childbearers as a justification for inequitable treatment, Susan C. Ross, codirector of the Campaign to End Discrimination Against Pregnant Workers, called for an explicit federal law eradicating discrimination based on pregnancy and childbirth. Congress responded by passing the Pregnancy Discrimination Act.


The passage of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act was the first attempt at a national policy on maternity that would influence personnel policies related to job security, hiring and promotion, safety standards, and employee benefit plans. Although compliance with the PDA was far from universal, many companies expanded employee benefit plans and initiated innovative programs to help pregnant women in the workplace. The PDA provided employers with the initiative to examine fetal protection policies and laid the foundation for state and federal regulations and laws concerning parental leave.

The primary impact of the PDA related to employee benefits plans. Although some companies provided equal benefits for pregnant and nonpregnant employees prior to the PDA, compliance with the PDA has been far from universal. Subsequent to the passage of the PDA, many companies evaluated their policies and adjusted them in order to comply with the law, while others were unsure as to what was required. Compliance with the PDA is highly correlated with organizational size. Immediately following enactment of the PDA, most large firms had adjusted benefits in order to comply with the law, but noncompliance was common among small organizations. Only about half of the firms with fewer than one hundred employees complied with the PDA by 1981. Small firms that ignored the law claimed that they did not know what was required to comply. A survey of small firms indicated that they were confused as to whether employers were required to provide health insurance, disability insurance, and sick-pay benefits for pregnancy-related conditions or merely to adjust existing benefits to cover pregnancy-related conditions equitably.

Prodded by the PDA, some companies expanded employee benefits and incorporated innovative features into their personnel policies. One new feature was to permit new fathers to take up to six months of unpaid leave to care for their infants. Another benefit extending beyond the PDA requirements related to unpaid leave. American Telephone and Telegraph American Telephone and Telegraph (AT&T) provided disability payments to pregnant employees before they gave birth and before they were certified as disabled. In drawing up new plans affecting pregnant employees, AT&T adjusted treatment of other employees as well. Employees who were not pregnant also became eligible for time off in advance of an anticipated disability.

As a result of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, some companies instituted programs for pregnant workers aimed at holding down the costs of expanding benefits and maintaining employee productivity. Cash incentives or alternative care arrangements, such as in-home nursing care following the birth, were offered to employees who leave the hospital earlier than expected. Such efforts lowered the cost to employers of health insurance and disability insurance premiums.

Numerous companies ran workplace seminars aimed at helping pregnant employees develop good health habits. According to occupational health nurses, these seminars on prenatal health care help reduce absenteeism during pregnancy and reduce the average length of maternity leave.

The issue of pregnancy-related discrimination has been examined by employers in the context of fetal protection policies. Companies concerned about reproductive hazards have instituted policies intended to protect fetal health. Some of these policies excluded women from jobs and occupations involving exposure to risks to the fetus. Johnson Controls, for example, refused to employ women in departments where lead was used because of concern about potential fetal injury.

The courts have ruled that policies that exclude women from jobs that may pose hazards to their reproductive health or the health of a fetus are direct violations of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as amended by the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 unless the threat cannot be abated by means of control of the risk or other protection from it. In three separate court cases, stringent tests for fetal protection policies were established. The courts ruled that a fetal protection policy may discriminate against women if persuasive evidence exists that the risk to the fetus is real and likely to occur and that the risk is confined to women or fetuses.

Employers responded to the prohibition of discriminatory fetal protection policies in several ways. Several large companies initiated research studies aimed at identifying potential connections between occupational exposures and adverse reproductive effects. Larger corporations offered protection from reproductive hazards through temporary job transfers of pregnant workers to jobs of comparable work at equal pay and began taking steps to try to minimize reproductive hazards for both female and male employees.

In response to the passage of the PDA, states addressed issues concerning pregnant workers through laws and regulations. Although only a few states had enacted laws pertaining to reproductive hazards by the 1990’s, a majority of states had addressed some aspect of work as it pertained to pregnant women. A number of states enacted laws or promulgated regulations covering pregnancy under disability laws and prohibiting discrimination in hiring and promotion decisions based on pregnancy.

One trend concerns laws governing maternity leave not related to disability. Under the PDA, employers must grant disability leave to pregnant employees to the same extent as offered to other employees for different types of disabilities. The PDA does not require employers to grant leave for child care. Several states passed laws mandating unpaid parental leave or maternity leave. Because the PDA provides for equal treatment, employers must offer the same parental leave to fathers as to mothers.

American companies typically did not offer maternity leaves that extended beyond the period of disability. In 1993, Congress passed the Family and Medical Leave Act Family and Medical Leave Act (1993) to address that issue. The primary provisions of the 1993 act centered on requiring a fixed number of weeks of unpaid parental leave, continued health benefits, and job security.

Employers are faced with difficulties in setting parameters with respect to pregnancy leave. Under the PDA, employers are prohibited from placing limits on the length of pregnancy leaves unless they also place identical limits on other disability leaves. This restriction has led to substantial state legislation regarding family and medical leaves as well as to the proposal of the federal Family and Medical Leave Act. One of the most progressive of these state programs was California’s Paid Family Leave insurance program of 2002, which allowed time off for parental bonding with their children. Pregnancy Discrimination Act (1978) Employment;gender discrimination Women;employment Reproductive rights Gender discrimination

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bureau of National Affairs. Pregnancy and Employment: The Complete Handbook on Discrimination, Maternity Leave, and Health and Safety. Washington, D.C.: Author, 1987. Provides an overview of legal developments covering pregnancy discrimination and maternity-leave issues. Reviews issues involving reproductive hazards to pregnant workers. Details programs initiated by employers.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dabrow, Allan, and Gina Ameci. “What You Should Know About Pregnancy and the Law.” Management Review 80 (August, 1991): 38-40. Examines several lawsuits subsequent to the PDA relating to discrimination in employment. Discusses trends relating to parental leave at the state and federal levels.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fried, Mindy. Taking Time: Parental Leave Policy and Corporate Culture. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1998. Fried examines daily life at a major U.S. corporation and argues that parental leave clashes with corporate culture. Part of Temple University Press’s Women in the Political Economy series.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kamerman, Sheila B., Alfred J. Kahn, and Paul Kingston. Maternity Policies and Working Women. New York: Columbia University Press, 1983. Discusses why maternity benefits are important and presents the evolution of federal maternity policies for working women. Also discusses the benefits mandated at the state level. Includes examples of maternity benefits from specific companies.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kohl, John P., and Paul S. Greenlaw. “The Pregnancy Discrimination Act: Compliance Problems.” Personnel 60 (November/December, 1983): 65-71. Summarizes the origins of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act and reports the results of a study investigating compliance with the PDA.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Player, Mack A. Federal Law of Employment Discrimination in a Nutshell. 5th ed. St. Paul, Minn.: Thomson/West, 2004. A layperson’s summary covering the federal law of employment discrimination.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Zigler, Edward F., and Meryl Frank, eds. The Parental Leave Crisis: Toward a National Policy. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1988. Provides a history of maternity-leave policies. Discusses why parental leave is important and examines the need for a national parental-leave policy. Useful for understanding the impact of women in the workforce on laws and employer policies.

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Categories: History