Pregnancy Rights Amendment Makes Good Business Sense

Illinois Employers beware of new law protecting Pregnant Employees

pregnancy-amendment     If you are an Illinois employer and haven’t yet taken action on the new pregnancy protection amendment to the Illinois Human Rights Act, it’s time to get moving.  The new amendment (HB0008), which went into effect January 1, 2015, provides additional protections against discrimination for pregnant women in the workplace.

Acknowledging that existing legislation had been inadequate, the new law prevents companies from firing or forcing expectant mothers to take unpaid leave.  The new law recognizes the obvious – that many women are now primary breadwinners for their families, a situation which can cause undue hardship if a worker loses her job due to pregnancy.  In addition to advancing the objective of gender equality, the new law also states that enabling pregnant women to work through pregnancy is good for business in terms of worker productivity, retention and morale, while reducing re-training and health care costs.  While most people understand that more equality is a moral imperative, it’s easy to forget that social progress is also sound business policy.

A Reasonable Duty to Accommodate, With Caveats

In addition to prohibiting discrimination, the HB 80008 also compels employers to “reasonably” accommodate any medical condition due to pregnancy or childbirth. The language applies not only to full time employees, but also to job applicants, part time and probationary workers.

Among the examples of accommodations required under the new law are more frequent or longer bathroom and rest breaks, a private space for breast feeding, lighter duty or a temporary reassignment, the option of reduced hours and even a paid leave of absence.

Since “reasonable” often has a wide range of interpretations – especially between workers and management – this legislation attempts to balance the interests of both.  As is the case with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, the principle of “undue hardship is included as a counterweight to the “duty to accommodate.” For smaller companies especially, compliance with some of the Amendment’s provisions may legitimately represent a burden the business may have difficulty bearing.

In the interest of fairness the new law allows employers leeway in assessing the validity of employee requests. The employer is permitted to request documentation from the worker’s health care provider providing the inquiry is clearly job related.  However, in this context the employer is restricted to a narrow set of information, including the date the accommodation was recommended, along with the description, medical justification and likely duration.

Consistent with the same principles associated with the ADA, both management and worker are expected to work together in good faith.  The new law prohibits an employer from forcing a pregnant worker to accept an accommodation when the employee has not requested it or to take a mandatory leave if another reasonable option is available.

Finally, the new law requires employers to reinstate a woman who has taken leave to either her original position or an equivalent job.  Again, the undue hardship principle provides the possibility of employer exemption under some circumstances.

Complying with HB0008

In order to initiate compliance with the new law, employers are required to post official notifications of these new protections.  That part is easy: the appropriate notices can be downloaded from the Illinois Department of Human Rights website in both English and Spanish.  The English version is mandatory, but the Spanish version may be also posted at the employer’s discretion.

In addition to posting the notice, employers will also be expected to update their employee handbooks to reflect the new provisions of the amended Act. In the process, we recommend employers take the opportunity to review existing policies that could be affected by the new legislation. Supervisors must also be trained regarding their new responsibilities.

Got questions about this topic or any other employment law challenge? Bellas & Wachowski is the go-to law firm for small businesses looking for answers.