Pregnant workers have new federal protections. What are your rights in California?

A doctor performs an ultrasound on a pregnant woman
A doctor performs an ultrasound exam on a pregnant woman. A new federal law requires employers to make accommodations to help pregnant workers stay on the job.
(Teresa Crawford/Associated Photo)
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Millions of pregnant and postpartum workers will have the chance to earn more from their jobs before and after they go on leave, thanks to a federal law that went into effect this week.

The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act fills a gap in workplace protections in many states — but not in California, which already has more extensive requirements on its books.

The new federal law, which will be enforced by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, mandates that employers with a minimum of 15 employees must provide “reasonable accommodations” to workers who require them due to pregnancy, childbirth or related medical conditions. The term “related medical conditions” extends the law’s protections to individuals undergoing fertility treatment, as well as those experiencing postpartum depression and those who have undergone an abortion or experienced pregnancy loss.


The EEOC is expected to provide guidance by the end of the year that will include examples of reasonable accommodations, such as flexible hours, the option to sit while working, closer parking, appropriate uniforms and exemptions from heavy lifting or exposure to hazardous chemicals. Employers, however, can be exempted from providing accommodations if they can show it would be significantly difficult or costly — that is, it would impose an “undue hardship.”

While the new law applies only to the steps companies must take to support pregnant and postpartum employees in the workplace, there are existing laws enforced by the commission that prohibit employers from firing or discriminating against workers on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth or related medical conditions.

The law does not replace federal, state or local laws that are more protective of workers affected by pregnancy, childbirth or related medical conditions. California workers, who are covered by the California Fair Employment and Housing Act, are among those who are more protected.

Here’s a quick guide to your workplace rights in California if you are pregnant, recently gave birth or have a related medical condition.

What are your protections against discrimination?

You are protected against employment discrimination based on sex, which includes discrimination related to pregnancy, childbirth, breastfeeding or related medical conditions.

The strictures apply to employers with five or more workers, except for religious nonprofit organizations. This is in contrast to the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, which sets a minimum threshold of 15 employees.


What are your rights?

  1. You can take up to four months of pregnancy disability leave, equivalent to the days you would normally work in one-third of a year or 17 1/3 weeks. Once you are no longer disabled by your pregnancy, your employer must return you to your same job or, in certain cases, provide you with a comparable job. But taking pregnancy disability leave does not shield you from employment actions unrelated to your condition, such as a layoff.
  2. If your employer has a policy of transferring temporarily disabled employees to less demanding positions, the same accommodation must be provided to pregnant employees.
  3. During this leave period, your employer must maintain the same level of health insurance coverage that you had before taking leave. Your employer is not required to pay you during your time off, but you can apply for state disability insurance benefits, which would cover part of your wages for up to three months.
  4. This protection applies to employers with five or more part- and full-time employees. You qualify if you’ve been employed there for more than a year, and have worked at least 1,250 hours in the 12-month period before the leave begins.

What accommodations can you receive?

  • You are entitled to receive reasonable accommodations for your medical needs, which may include temporary modifications to your work duties, provision of a stool or chair, or more frequent breaks.
  • Unlike the new federal law, California does not allow employers to cite “undue hardship” as a reason not to provide accommodations.
  • You can be transferred to a less strenuous or hazardous position if it is available and medically necessary due to your pregnancy.
  • You are entitled to a reasonable amount of break time to breastfeed, as well as access to a private room or suitable location that shields you from view and prevents intrusion.

Can you take time off for family care and medical leave?

If you have been employed for at least a year and have worked a minimum of 1,250 hours in the previous 12-month period, you have the right to take up to 12 weeks of family care and medical leave in any 12-month period. That leave would be in addition to the time off you took while on pregnancy disability leave.

This entitlement applies if your employer is either the state of California or an entity directly employing at least five individuals.

You may be eligible for California Family Rights Act leave for the following reasons:

  • Birth, adoption or foster care placement of your child
  • Your own serious health condition
  • Serious health condition of your child, parent, spouse, domestic partner, grandparent, grandchild, sibling or someone else related by blood or in a family-like relationship with you

Employers may choose to pay employees while they’re on California Family Rights Act leave, but they aren’t required to do so unless the employees are using paid time off. Instead, if you take California Family Rights Act leave, you may be eligible for up to eight weeks of partial wages from the Employment Development Department.

What are an employee’s responsibilities?

  • Before taking leave or seeking accommodations, you must give your employer sufficient notice to allow them to make appropriate arrangements. If foreseeable, provide a 30-day advance notice. In case of an emergency or unforeseeable need, notify your employer as soon as practicable.
  • Unless it’s a medical emergency, your employer may require a written medical certification from your healthcare provider. This certification validates the medical necessity for your reasonable accommodation, transfer or pregnancy disability leave. If it’s an emergency or unforeseeable, submit the certification within the time frame requested by your employer, unless it’s not practicable despite your diligent efforts. Your employer must allow at least 15 calendar days for you to submit the certification. Check if your employer has a medical certification form for your healthcare provider to complete.
  • Failing to provide reasonable advance notice or written medical certification may result in your employer justifiably delaying your reasonable accommodation, transfer, or pregnancy disability leave.