Exercise Caution Before Acting in Pregnant Employee’s “Best Interest”

Consistent with its Strategic Enforcement Plan, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) continues to focus on pregnancy discrimination claims. The agency recently sued a Washington-based fruit grower for terminating an employee due to her pregnancy. Maria Guillen was a supervisor for Tiny’s Organic. She had been with the company for six years, starting as a laborer and working her way up to a supervisor position. Tiny’s fired Guillen just nine days after announcing she was pregnant with twins. Even though Guillen had no medical restrictions, the EEOC claimed that Tiny’s fired Guillen because it feared for her safety and because Guillen could potentially be a liability for the company.

Tiny’s ultimately settled the claim with the EEOC and agreed to pay Guillen $17,500 and take preventative measures to avoid further discrimination. Specifically, the company agreed to provide an anti-discrimination policy to managers and conduct annual management and employee training in English and Spanish. Tiny’s also agreed to implement complaint handling procedures and make sure that management took such complaints seriously. The company also had to post a notice about the case and engage in annual reporting to the EEOC on its efforts for two years.

Employers sometimes overstep boundaries and assume they know best for their pregnant employees. Such actions can lead to discriminatory decisions about what the pregnant employee can and cannot do. If an employer has an objective reason for believing a pregnant employee cannot perform her job duties (such as observing the employee struggling with tasks or statements made by the pregnant employee), then the employer should request a doctor’s note outlining any potential restrictions and their duration. Otherwise, a paternalistic decision, such as discharging a pregnant employee for the benefit of her safety or the safety of her unborn child, could put the company on the EEOC’s enforcement radar.