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► Employer's Ill-fated Response To Pregnant Employee

A well-known furniture company faced a difficult situation when a recently hired employee, whose job involved using a hazardous chemical, announced she was pregnant. The chemical contained a warning stating that it could potentially pose a risk to a woman or her unborn child. The company was rightly concerned but the manager’s response to the situation landed the company in hot water with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

The Case

RTG Furniture Corp. of Georgia, is a Florida corporation that operates a chain of “Rooms to Go” furniture stores and distribution centers nationwide. The company hired Chantoni McBryde on June 1, 2015 and assigned her to work as a shop apprentice at the company's temporary training facility in Dunn, North Carolina. The job required the use of various chemicals to repair furniture.

Two days after she was hired (June 3), McBryde informed the company's shop trainer that she was pregnant. Later that same day, she was called into a meeting with the company's regional shop manager and others and was asked to confirm that she was pregnant. During the meeting, the regional shop manager showed McBryde a can of lacquer thinner that contained a warning that the contents could potentially pose a risk to a woman or her unborn child, and discussed the warning with her. McBryde was then told that because she was pregnant, she could no longer work at the facility and was terminated.

A Regrettable Decision

Terminating workers because they are pregnant violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended by the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA). The EEOC filed suit in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. RTG Furniture Corp. of Georgia) after first attempting to reach a pre-litigation settlement with the company through the agency's conciliation process.

In addition to providing monetary relief of $55,000 to McBryde, the company entered into a three-year consent decree requiring it to develop and implement a policy that prohibits pregnancy-based discrimination. The decree further requires the company to conduct annual training for employees, supervisors, and managers at certain facilities on Title VII and its prohibition against pregnancy discrimination in the workplace. Rooms to Go must also post an employee notice about the lawsuit and on employee rights under federal anti-discrimination laws at those same facilities, as well as provide periodic reports to the EEOC.

What Do Employers Need to Know?

The Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) is an amendment to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Discrimination on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions constitutes unlawful sex discrimination under Title VII. Under the PDA, an employer cannot fire, refuse to hire, demote, or take any other adverse action against a woman if pregnancy, childbirth, or a related medical condition was a motivating factor in the adverse employment action.  This is true even if the employer believes it is acting in the employee's best interest.

Women affected by pregnancy or related conditions must be treated in the same manner as other applicants or employees who are similar in their ability or inability to work. If a woman is temporarily unable to perform her job due to a medical condition related to pregnancy or childbirth, the employer must treat her the same as any other temporarily disabled employee. For example, the employer may have to provide modified tasks, alternative assignments, disability leave or unpaid leave.

Employers should review their anti-discrimination policies to ensure they are fully compliant with the law. Train supervisors regarding discrimination, harassment and retaliation and ensure that they are aware of all state and federal laws. Finally, train management to avoid inappropriate comments and actions, and to avoid making personnel decisions based on stereotypes.

For more information, please refer to the Equal Opportunity chapter of the Personnel Advisor Reference Manual, or click on the link to view an EEOC Fact Sheet on pregnancy discrimination.

By Nancy R. McDermott. Ms. McDermott, J.D., is a legal editor and writer who has served as the legal editor for The Personnel Advisor for the past 17 years.



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