A pregnant woman wearing blue scrubs

An Illinois nursing home owner must pay $400,000 to resolve a lawsuit alleging it discriminated against and fired pregnant employees, the Equal Opportunity Commission announced Wednesday.

The resolution of the multi-year case underscores some employers’ continued misunderstanding of, or lack of concern for, decades of established pregnancy discrimination law. Requirements for compliance will expand in June, when a pregnancy accommodations act approved by Congress last year takes effect.

In this case, the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sued Symphony Deerbrook after it failed to reach a settlement regarding employment practices at the company’s Joliet, IL, facility.

In 2021, the EEOC charged that Symphony had imple­mented a written policy requiring employees to inform the company of any pregnancies. There was no similar written policy requiring other, non-pregnant employees to disclose medical information, the EEOC said.

Pregnant employees also were expected to receive a medical exam and present a note clearing them to work, even if they were not seeking accommodations. The government also said pregnant employees whose doctors ordered restrictions and who had not worked for Symphony for a year were fired.

“It is established law that employers cannot require pregnant employees to subject themselves to medical exams simply to remain employed or treat them less favorably than similar non-pregnant employees,” Gregory Gochanour, EEOC’s regional attorney in Chicago, said in announcing the settlement Wednesday.

Such conduct violates the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978, which prohibits employers from discrimination on the basis of pregnancy and requires that employers treat pregnant employees the same as other employees who are similar in their ability or inability to work. The 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act also prohibits employee medical examinations that are not job related or consistent with business necessity, the EEOC noted.

Symphony’s settlement agreement requires the company pay $400,000 to 11 employees affected by the illegal policies. The agreement also is intended to prevent the company from  denying pregnant workers job modifications available to other similar employees and requiring pregnant employees to obtain doctor’s notes.

Symphony sold the facility in 2021, and the facility now operates as Pearl of Joliet. Pearl said it would provide anti-discrimination training to all current employees; post a notice about the lawsuit’s resolution; and report future information to the EEOC to ensure compliance.

The EEOC did not allege any wrongdoing on Pearl’s part. A message left at the facility for the administrator and other managers Wednesday was not returned by McKnight’s deadline.

New requirements ahead

In addition to existing law, companies with 15 or more employees also will be subject to the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, which is effective in June.

Under that rule, employers must provide “reasonable accommodations” to a worker’s known limitations related to pregnancy, childbirth or related medical conditions, unless the accommodation will cause the employer an “undue hardship.”

The PWFA applies only to accommodations, while existing laws will continue to make it illegal to fire or otherwise discriminate against pregnant workers or those who have just had a child.

Under the new act, covered employers cannot:  

  • Require an employee to accept an accommodation without a discussion about that accommodation between the worker and the employer;
  • Deny a job or other employment opportunities to a qualified employee or applicant based on the person’s need for a reasonable accommodation;
  • Require an employee to take leave if another reasonable accommodation can be provided that would let the employee keep working; or
  • Retaliate against an individual for reporting or opposing unlawful discrimination under the PWFA or participating in a PWFA proceeding (such as an investigation)

“The PWFA seeks to ensure that pregnant workers are able to continue in their jobs with reasonable accommodations for physical or mental conditions related to pregnancy and childbirth,” Kathryn Trent, an associate attorney in Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton LLP’s labor and employment group wrote in a blog earlier this month.

She said providers would be wise to review their accommodation policies, considering how to update the training of supervisors and human resources professionals and analyzing what accommodations they might be able to provide.

Trent noted that the PWFA fills a gap in existing law by explicitly requiring accommodations, which could include providing women the ability to sit down or drink water; access to closer parking; flexibility in work hours; additional break time allowances for bathroom use, eating or resting; use of leave to recover from childbirth; and excusal from “strenuous activities and/or activities that involve exposure to compounds not safe for pregnancy.”