In 2012, Reyna* found out she was pregnant. (*Reyna asked that we not use her last name because she is undocumented.) As part of her job working as a prep cook in a restaurant, she had to lift heavy supplies, stand on things to put ingredients on high shelves, and move pots of hot water. She was worried about whether her job was safe for her pregnancy, but didn’t know what to do. “I am an immigrant, I have no rights,” she thought.

She decided to tell her boss about her pregnancy and asked for help. His reply: “You can stay in your job, as long as you work as normal.” She couldn’t afford to lose the work. Instead, she worked extra hours to make up for the time she needed for doctor’s appointments, secretly ate to fill her pregnancy cravings, and had to listen to coworkers comment about her body and ability to keep working. She also got a second job to save money in case she got fired after the baby came.

Although there are a number of worker protections for people who are pregnant, according to Sophia Elliot, an attorney with The Women’s Law Project, Reyna’s story is not unique.

Your rights at work if you’re pregnant vary depending on where you are and where you work, how long you’ve worked there, how big your employer is, and more. It can get confusing, so we’ve broken it all down.

Key takeaways: Pregnancy and employment rights in Pennsylvania

  • Non-binary and transgender people are covered by pregnancy anti-discrimination policies.
  • Your rights are not tied to your immigration status. Undocumented workers are protected at the federal, state, and Philadelphia level.
  • There is no such thing as lawful discrimination. But some unfair or unethical situations are not legally considered discrimination.
  • Pregnant people in Philadelphia have more workplace rights than people in the rest of Pennsylvania.
  • You have to file a claim at the local, state or federal level first if you want to take your case to court.
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Do I have to tell my employer that I’m pregnant?

No. It’s technically not illegal for your employer to ask if you are pregnant, or trying to conceive, during a job interview or at any point after being hired. But you don’t have to tell them, and they can’t retaliate against you for not sharing that information.

That said, it’s a good idea to tell your supervisor, according to both Elliot and Rhiannon DiClemente, an attorney with Community Legal Services (CLS), in case you need any accommodations because of your pregnancy.

Can I be fired for being pregnant?

No. If you are pregnant, you’re protected — in most cases — from being laid off, fired, paid less, not hired, refused training, or not promoted just for being pregnant. (There are some exceptions.) This protection is covered by federal, state, and local laws.

  • The federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) protects you if you work for a company that has 15 employees or more.

  • In Pennsylvania, the Human Relations Act (HRA) gives you the same protections if you work for a company with at least four employees, though agriculture and domestic workers don’t qualify.

  • In Philadelphia, the Fair Practice Ordinance (FPO) protects you if you work for a company with more than one non-family employee.

“The law recognizes pregnancy as a temporary medical condition that employers shouldn’t discriminate against,” says DiClemente. So, you can’t get fired for being pregnant (but you can get fired while you’re pregnant, as long as it’s for unrelated reasons).

Can I ask for my job duties to change if I’m pregnant?

If you work in Philadelphia, yes. Since 2014, the Fair Practice Ordinance requires most employers to make reasonable accommodations for employees during pregnancy, childbirth, and related medical conditions. Under the ordinance, it’s your employer’s responsibility to provide accommodations or prove they can’t. But it’s your responsibility to request them.

You can ask for any change in your current working conditions that can help you perform the essential functions of your job during pregnancy, after childbirth as long as it doesn’t cause your employer undue hardship. You can ask for things like:

  • Breaks, including using the restroom or time to sit down, if you have to stand for long periods of time.

  • Help with manual labor if your job involves a lot of lifting or carrying objects, you can also ask to be put on light duty, or required to do less bending.

  • Reassignment to another position, or a restructuring of your job if your work puts you in contact with harmful substances, your doctor determines your working conditions are unsafe for your pregnancy, or you develop a medical condition that doesn’t let you fully perform your work.

  • A leave of absence if you develop a disability after childbirth.

Remember: these are just examples, not the only accommodations that you can request. Both Elliot and Amal Bass, an attorney for The Women’s Law Project, have seen employees ask for things as reasonable and basic as having access to drinking water.

COVID-19 has added new dimensions to what’s considered an accommodation, says Elliot. “Now there is an argument to be made that remote work is a reasonable accommodation and doesn’t cause undue hardship on the employer,” she says.

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What if my employer says no?

Your employer can say no if your request creates “undue hardship” — meaning, the company doesn’t have the resources to accommodate you. If the accommodation is too expensive, deeply alters the structure or nature of the company’s operations, or they don’t have enough employees to be able to facilitate a job restructuring, your employer can say no. This can be an issue if you work for a small business.

DiClemente recommends filing a discrimination complaint if you can’t find a resolution with your employer. It’s up to the company to prove they can’t accommodate your request.

What if I get sick while I’m pregnant or have complications?

Even though pregnancy is not a disability, you may be entitled to disability protections at work. If you can’t do your job because of a medical condition related to pregnancy or childbirth, the PDA considers you to have a temporary disability. That means that your employer has to give you the same kinds of accommodation — like light duty, access to a chair, disability leave or other things — that they offer to other employees who need assistance for other reasons.

You can ask your employer for accommodations — such as taking breaks to drink water or take medication, not requiring you to lift heavy things, allowing you to sit down during your shift, or unpaid leave if you need bed rest — anything that will allow you to complete your job while staying healthy. In some cases, your employer can refuse; in other cases they have to accommodate you.

If you develop a condition like gestational diabetes or preeclampsia, you are considered disabled under the Americans with Disabilities Act, and your employer has to grant you accommodations based on what you’re able and not able to do because of your condition. It’s important to remember, says DiClemente, that “if you have longer-lasting health conditions that arise from pregnancy or giving birth, your employer is obligated under the law to accommodate you.”

In Philadelphia, if you get sick, you’re covered by the FPO Fair Practice Ordinance, which requires all employers to give all pregnant workers accommodations that will allow them to do their job, as long as it doesn’t cause undue hardship for the business. Philadelphia is one of only five cities that give pregnant workers better protections than state laws.

Currently, both the federal government and Pennsylvania are debating a Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, which would require employers to make reasonable accommodations for all pregnant employees.

How much time can I take off after I give birth?

The Family and Federal leave Act allows you to take up to 12 unpaid weeks (three months) off work without the risk of losing your job. You can take this time for parental leave, to bond with your baby, care for your spouse, or after placing a child for adoption or in foster care.

But not everyone qualifies. Your employer needs to have at least 50 employees within 75 miles of the office or worksite; you need you have worked for the company for at least one full year (and at least 1,250 hours).

What do I do if I’m discriminated against at work because I’m pregnant?

Before filling a discrimination complaint, try to talk to your employer. Make them aware of what accommodations you need. If they refuse, ask your doctor for a note explaining why your request is medically necessary to ensure a safe and healthy pregnancy.

“You have the right to speak up and enforce your rights,” says Elliot. Keep records of emails or written conversations where you are requesting reasonable accommodations because these documents will be helpful evidence if you decide to submit a claim.

Filing a discrimination complaint

You don’t need a lawyer to file a complaint.

And you can file a complaint even if you’re undocumented, but Bass recommends getting help. “Your rights are protected, but you should seek legal council because there could be additional ramifications for you.”

If you live in Philadelphia, you can file a complaint with the Philadelphia Commission of Human Relations (PCHR), which is in charge of enforcing the FPO and other anti-discrimination laws, investigating complaints, resolving conflicts through dialogue and dispute resolution, and making sure everyone in the city has equal rights and opportunities. PCHR investigates any complaints that fall under the 15 categories that are protected from employment discrimination. Pregnancy, childbirth, and related medical conditions are all protected under the “sex” category.

If you don’t meet all the requirements or are unsure, call the intake line at 215-686-4670. If you are deaf, hard of hearing, or have a severe speech impairment, use the TTY line at 215-686-3238.

Filing a complaint for workplace discrimination

You can file a complaint in Philadelphia if:

  • the discrimination happened in Philadelphia.
  • you are the one being discriminated against (can’t file for someone else, unless you are their parent or guardian).
  • it happened within the past 300 days
  • you haven’t filed the same complaint with the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission or the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
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Philadelphia doesn’t allow cross complaints, so if you have filed a federal or state complaint, you can’t file the same one in the city.

If you live in Pennsylvania (but outside Philadelphia), you can file a complaint with the PA Human Relations Commission (PAHRC). You have to file your complaint within 180 days from the last time you feel you were discriminated against. PAHRC investigates complaints that fall under 11 protected categories. Like in Philadelphia, pregnancy, childbirth, and related medical conditions are all protected under the “sex” category.

If you want to file a complaint with PAHRC, call 717-787-4410 or visit phrc.pa.gov

You can also file a federal claim the U.S Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which has a specific category for pregnancy and childbirth that is protected from employment discrimination. If you file in Pennsylvania with PAHRC, they will usually file a federal claim for you.

If you want to file a complaint with EEOC, call 800-669-4000 or go to eeoc.gov.

Expert sources:

  • Sophia Elliot, J.D., legal fellow, The Women’s Law Project
  • Amal Bass, J.D., director of policy and advocacy, The Women's Law Project
  • Rhiannon DiClemente, J.D., staff attorney, Community Legal Services
  • Joyce Collier, J.D., counsel, employment law, civil rights, complex litigation, Weir Greenblatt Pierce LLP
  • Kasturi Sen, J.D., senior associate, employment law, Weir Greenblatt Pierce LLP
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