In 1978 Congress amended Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to enact the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) (P.L. 95-555, 92 Stat. 2076). This act was passed to reverse the Supreme Court's decision in General Electric Company v. Gilbert (1976) in which the Supreme Court held that Title VII's prohibition against "sex" discrimination does not include a ban on pregnancy-based discrimination. Title VII generally bans sex discrimination in employment. By amending Title VII, Congress extended that prohibition to include pregnancy-based discrimination. In Gilbert, the Supreme Court held that General Electric's disability plan did not discriminate against women in violation of Title VII when it provided coverage for virtually all nonoccupational illnesses and accidents except pregnancy. Quoting analysis that it had used in a previous constitutional law decision, the Supreme Court explained that General Electric's plan did not constitute sex discrimination because "the program divides potential recipients into two groupsregnant women and nonpregnant persons. While the first group is exclusively female, the second includes members of both sexes" (Geduldig vs. Aiello ).
Congress passed the PDA to reverse the holding in Gilbert, but in doing so Congress went well beyond the fact pattern presented in the Gilbert case. It provided broad antidiscrimination protection to pregnant women, not simply disability-plan protection. The mechanism chosen by Congress to achieve this objective was to amend Title VII's definition of "sex" discrimination to include pregnancy-based discrimination. It defined the term "because of sex" to include discrimination "on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth or related medical conditions." It required that "women affected by pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions shall be treated the same for all employment-related purposes, including receipt of benefits under fringe benefits programs, as other persons not so affected but similar in their ability or inability to work."
Congress's intention to provide broad protection to women on the basis of pregnancy is reflected in the act's legislative history. Representative Augustus Hawkins, Democrat of California, introduced the act on the floor of the House, making it clear that the purpose of the act was to ban broadly discrimination on the basis of pregnancy. The Senate Committee on Human Resources and the House Committee on Education and Labor authored strong reports supporting a broad interpretation of the act. Despite the considerable support for the PDA within Congress, the courts were soon faced with difficult questions of interpretation under the act.
First, the courts had to determine whether men could bring a cause of action under the statute if pregnancy hospitalization benefits were not available to their spouses under the employer's health care policy (while all other conditions were covered). In a 7 decision, Justice John Paul Stevens wrote the Court's opinion in which he concluded that the act does provide a cause of action for male workers in that situation. Finding that Congress had disavowed the Court's earlier decision in Gilbert, the Supreme Court held that sex discrimination, as defined by Congress, did include pregnancy-based discrimination that creates economic harm for a male employee by providing him with a less favorable insurance policy than provided to employees without pregnant spouses. While the language of the act did not specifically address this problem, Justice Stevens concluded that coverage of that situation was wholly consistent with Congress's intentions when it enacted the PDA.
Second, the courts were faced with the question of whether the PDA created a cause of action to challenge a state statute that provided pregnant employees with more favorable disability protection than other employees. In California Federal Savings & Loan Association vs. Guerra(1987), Justice Thurgood Marshall wrote a 6 majority opinion for the Court holding that the Pregnancy Discrimination Act does not bar employment practices favoring pregnant women.
The Supreme Court has continued to interpret the PDA broadly. In 1991 it ruled in UAW v. Johnson Controls that an employer could not refuse to employ women who were of childbearing age because of potential hazards to a fetus that might result from exposure to chemicals in the workplace.
Although the PDA has been important in extending equality to pregnant women in the workplace, it does not require employers to provide any particular length of leave for pregnant workers. Congress took that important step in 1993 when it enacted the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). Female employees who have worked for their employer for at least a year are now guaranteed six weeks of unpaid pregnancy leave upon the birth or adoption of a child.
The combination of the PDA and FMLA provides pregnant women with stronger job protection than at any time in our nation's history. Many women desire Congress to go further and guarantee paid leave to pregnant workers. Still others assert that they continue to face subtle forms of pregnancybased discrimination that are difficult to prove in a court of law. Nonetheless, gone are the days when an employer may lawfully insist that a woman quit her job upon learning that she is pregnant, and because of the PDA and associated rulings, women do have legal redress available when overt acts of pregnancy-based discrimination occur.
See also: CIVIL RIGHTS ACT OF 1964; FAMILY AND MEDICAL LEAVE ACT OF 1993; TITLE IX, EDUCATION AMENDMENTS.
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