Is Pregnancy Considered a Disability?

Although pregnancy doesn't qualify as a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), pregnant employees have the right to be treated just as their employer treats other employees who are temporarily unable to work.

Updated by , J.D. · University of Missouri School of Law

Pregnancy doesn't qualify as a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the federal law that prohibits workplace disability discrimination.

However, pregnancy discrimination is illegal in its own right. Employers may not make job decisions based on an employee's pregnancy, and must treat employees who are temporarily unable to work due to pregnancy just as they treat employees who are temporarily disabled for other reasons.

Pregnant employees may also be entitled to time off work under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and state leave laws.

Pregnancy Discrimination Is Illegal

The federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) amended Title VII, the primary federal antidiscrimination law, to make clear that pregnancy discrimination is a form of illegal sex discrimination.

The PDA prohibits employers from discriminating against applicants and employees on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, and related medical conditions. For example, an employer may not refuse to hire an applicant because she is pregnant; require an employee to go on leave prior to giving birth, if the employee is able to work and wants to continue doing so; or select an employee for layoff because she is pregnant and the employer assumes she won't want to return to work after having a child.

Like Title VII, the PDA applies to private employers with 15 or more employees. All government employers, whether federal, state, or local, must also comply with the PDA.

Pregnancy As a Temporary Disability

If an employee is temporarily unable to work due to pregnancy, the employer must treat her as it treats other employees with temporary disabilities, no better and no worse. For instance, if an employer provides temporary job modifications, disability leave, or unpaid leave for employees who have heart attacks, broken limbs, or other temporary disabilities, it must make those same opportunities to pregnant employees.

The rules pertaining to accrual of benefits, seniority, vacation calculation, pay increases, and so on must be applied the same way to employees on leave due to pregnancy as to employees on any other disability leave.

If an employee has to miss work due to pregnancy, childbirth, or a related medical condition, the employer must hold the employee's job open for the same amount of time as it would for an employee on leave for illness or disability. However, the employer may be obligated to provide pregnancy leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) or state law, as explained below.

Pregnancy-Related Conditions That Qualify as ADA Disabilities

While pregnancy itself is not disabling under the ADA, there are a number of temporary conditions related to pregnancy that are considered disabilities. They include:

  • pregnancy-related carpal tunnel syndrome
  • gestational diabetes
  • pregnancy-related sciatica, and
  • preeclampsia.

The above list is not exhaustive. Any condition caused by or worsened by pregnancy, even if only temporary, can qualify as a disability under the ADA.

Pregnancy Leave

In addition to the leave employers provide to other temporarily disabled employees, pregnant employees may also be entitled to take pregnancy leave under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) or their state law.

Under the FMLA, employees who meet the eligibility requirements can take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for their own serious health condition. Pregnancy is considered a serious health condition under the law.

An employee may use FMLA leave to take time off if she is incapacitated by pregnancy. For example, a woman who suffers severe morning sickness or is ordered by her doctor to spend the last month of her pregnancy on bed rest could use FMLA leave. Visits to the doctor for prenatal care also are covered, even routine check-ups. The FMLA applies only to certain employers and employees; for more information, see Who Is Covered Under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA)?

Some states have laws similar to the FMLA, which allow employees to take time off for medical conditions, including pregnancy. A number of states also have pregnancy disability leave laws, which require employers to provide time off for the length of time when a woman is temporarily disabled by pregnancy and childbirth.

These laws often don't provide for a set amount of time off; instead, they require employers to provide either a "reasonable" amount of leave or leave for the period of disability, often with a maximum time limit.

Getting Legal Help

If you believe you were discriminated against because of your pregnancy or unfairly denied pregnancy leave, you may want to consult with an employment attorney. An attorney will review the facts of your case and assess whether your legal rights have been violated. If your employer has acted illegally, an attorney can help you negotiate a settlement or file a charge of discrimination -- and a lawsuit, if necessary.

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