Ann (who prefers to remain anonymous) was working for a nonprofit in Oakland, California, with 10 employees when she found out she was pregnant. Not only was her employer supportive throughout her pregnancy, but as her workplace was mostly women, she felt comfortable sharing her pregnancy journey with her co-workers openly. Although Ann’s company did not provide maternity leave, she was able to use a combination of sick days, paid time off, plus California state medical leave to accumulate enough time to take five months off to deliver and stay home with her baby. Challenges began when she had to return to work—challenges many new mothers face.
Perhaps the biggest challenge in returning to work was breastfeeding, She had to use a 5 x 6′ area in the company’s kitchen which was sectioned off for lactation.
“I was walked in on, and it was awful. Luckily, it was a woman who walked in on me. I also felt that there was pressure to keep working while I was pumping breast milk. I would be on conference calls with the machine whirring and making noise in the background,” she says,
Ann described how other women at the company set a precedent of working while breastfeeding and she felt the obligation to do the same. Though she felt breastfeeding should be relaxing and stress-free, she didn’t complain because she appreciated the flexibility her employer provided.
Ann’s experience is common. According to a 2015 report by the Pew Research Center, working while pregnant has become commonplace. In the late 1960s, about 40% of women worked full-time during their first pregnancies; by 2008 that figure rose to almost 60%. The report also found that eight in 10 women (82%) worked until they were within one month of their due date.
If you are one of the eight out of 10, it is essential to be armed with information on how to navigate and protect your rights in the workplace. For instance, it’s important to know when to break the news that you are pregnant to your employer; what your rights are under the law; and what to expect when you return to work is vital to your pre-and post-partum physical and mental health. Pregnancy workplace discrimination can also be overt or subtle.
Telling Your Employer You’re Pregnant
There are no real rules or legal deadlines to notify your employer of your pregnancy. You may want to keep in mind that the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which protects you under the law for time off during pregnancy, requires that your request FMLA 30 days in advance.
If you become ill during your pregnancy or require an accommodation, you may need to notify your boss earlier. It is highly recommended to schedule a confidential meeting with Human Resources to review your options under the company’s policies before informing your boss. Sitting down with HR will help ease your anxieties. It will also serve as documentation that you requested advice and guidance to protect your job, which will go a long way if for some reason you need to leave suddenly because your pregnancy does not go as expected.
Your HR person can work with you so you can be prepared with a plan to help your boss prepare for your absence, especially if the company has a parental leave policy. Have a notebook ready to document the entire process. Do not hesitate to ask for clarification if HR or your boss shares something that does not sound right. Remember, unfair treatment based on pregnancy is illegal.
Know Your Rights About Pregnancy Workplace Discrimination
Get familiar with your rights under FMLA and the American Disability Act (ADA). Depending on where you work, state or local law may guarantee you the right to certain workplace modifications.
Have a conversation with your doctor about your job duties to determine if you will need to make changes to your current work situation. You may need to wear a different uniform, sit more often, or take additional time off. If your doctor diagnoses you with a medical condition or disability associated with your pregnancy (like gestational diabetes, hypertension, migraines, fatigue, back pain, or swelling in your feet), federal and state disability law should protect you.
Your needs may change during the pregnancy so your doctor will be your best ally as you navigate your time at work during your pregnancy. Remember that while you are out on leave, your direct report should be aware of all sick days that you may take in association with your pregnancy. Keep all documentation of doctor’s visits and make every effort to schedule those visits as a planned absence from work.
According to Pregnant at Work, to continue working safely, a pregnant employee may require adjustments in how, when, or where her job is performed. Examples of pregnancy accommodations in the workplace include:
- Sitting, instead of standing, during the workday
- Taking more frequent breaks to use the restroom, having a snack, or resting
- Receiving assistance with heavy lifting and other physical activities
- Working a modified or part-time schedule
Returning to Work
There is no easy way to return to work after having a baby. The best way is to return gradually to give yourself time to adjust to your new schedule. Celebrities often make “bouncing back” look effortless. Unless you have a nanny, live-in house cleaner, housekeeper, dietician, and a camp of people to help you through this transition, take it easy on yourself.
Start by mapping out your day and setting expectations with yourself and your boss. Although working from home is ideal, realize that focusing on work with an infant presents another unique set of challenges. Again, this is an opportunity to work with HR and your direct report on how to best manage work expectations, breastfeeding, time-off, and other responsibilities.
Keep the line of communication open. Ask HR about resources such as an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) that can provide everything from free counseling services to concierge services. Join a parenting group. Ultimately remember, however, work will never be more important than your health and the health of your new baby.