Paternalism and pregnant workers do not mix. Case in point? According to this EEOC press release, the agency has sued a North Carolina retail-furniture franchise for pregnancy discrimination.
According to EEOC’s complaint, 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. On June 3, McBryde informed the company’s shop trainer that she was pregnant. Later that same day, McBryde was pulled into a meeting with the company’s shop trainer, shop manager and regional shop manager and was asked to confirm that she was pregnant. EEOC said that 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 McBryde. EEOC said that McBryde was then told that because she was pregnant, she could no longer work at the facility.
It appears that this employer was acting out of good intentions. It feared (reasonably or unreasonably) for the safety of this employee’s unborn child. That concern, however, does not excuse pregnancy discrimination. EEOC Charlotte District Office regional attorney Lynette Barnes puts it best: “Pregnant women have the right to make their own decisions about working while pregnant, including the risks they are willing to assume. Companies must not impose paternalistic notions on pregnant women as doing so can result in unlawful discrimination.”
Fears or outdated paternalistic notions about pregnancy (and the limits it may, or may not, impose on an employee) are off limits for employers. An employer has zero business trying to protect a pregnant worker or her fetus. Those decisions are left to the employee, and, as this case illustrates, the EEOC will not hesitate to help prove that point.
Jon Hyman is a partner at Meyers, Roman, Friedberg & Lewis in Cleveland. Comment below or email firstname.lastname@example.org.