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  • pregnant worker contemplating her leave

    Introduction — California Protections for Pregnant Workers

    California law offers strong protections to employees who have been subjected to discrimination and harassment. Despite that, pregnancy discrimination and retaliation for standing up to discrimination remain rampant. Once employees have been wrongfully terminated, they often know to reach out to seek legal help immediately. But current employees are often more confused about what to do. They may rightfully feel afraid about reporting unlawful conduct to Human Resources, particularly when the conduct is coming from their immediate supervisor. What if it just makes the situation worse? Indeed, far too often, Human Resources is more concerned with protecting the company than with taking the immediate corrective action that the law requires of them. A retaliating supervisor can make a job feel like death by 1,000 paper cuts: scrutinizing, criticizing, and nit-picking every action by an employee, making them feel ostracized or humiliating them in front of their peers, and leaving them in a constant state of fear and anxiety. Indeed, if true, the experiences of the Google employee whose memo went viral demonstrate the myriad ways that a company can fail its employees and allow discrimination and retaliation to persist.

    An employee’s best hope is to be fully informed about their legal rights. They can then decide whether to report internally, to file a claim with one of the government agencies that investigates and enforces anti-discrimination laws, to seek private counsel to negotiate an exit or to file suit, or to make a conscious decision to wait (being mindful that if a person waits too long, they may forever lose their ability to assert the claim–a post on this topic will be forthcoming). To that end, I provide the following brief overview of employment protections for California workers subjected to pregnancy discrimination and retaliation. Note that many of these topics have been covered in greater depth elsewhere throughout the blog. (The archive categories are listed to the right of this post.)

    1.       Discrimination

    The Fair Employment and Housing Act (“FEHA”) prohibits discrimination against employees because they belong to a protected category (sex, pregnancy, race, religion, disability, etc.). This includes refusing to hire or promote employees, terminating them, or discriminating against them in compensation or in terms, conditions, or privileges of employment.

    2.       Harassment

    The FEHA further prohibits harassment against employees, applicants, unpaid interns or volunteers, and contractors because of their protected status. Employers are strictly liable for harassment by a supervisor. They are liable for harassment by non-supervisors, and even non-employees, if they knew or should have known of the conduct but failed to take immediate and appropriate corrective action. Employers are obligated to take all reasonable steps to prevent harassment from occurring. An employee need not lose tangible job benefits (e.g., be terminated or demoted) to establish harassment. More on workplace harassment can be found here.

    3.       Retaliation

    The FEHA protects an employee who has “opposed any practices forbidden” under the Act.

    An employee is engaging in protected activity when she opposes any practice that would violate the FEHA, even if the practice is not directed at her: “The ‘opposition’ clause protects conduct by an employee who is not the direct victim of a practice made unlawful under Title VII, but who ‘opposes’ such discrimination against others.” (Chin, et al., Cal. Practice Guide Employment Litigation (2019 The Rutter Group) ¶ 5:1527.) Thus, it is unlawful for an employer to retaliate against an employee who reports or otherwise opposes pregnancy discrimination. The FEHA separately imposes liability on an employer for failing to prevent retaliation.

    An employee does not have to be right that discrimination actually occurred; they are protected if they had a good-faith belief of discrimination.

    Employees also have protections under California’s general whistleblower protection statute, Labor Code § 1102.5, which protects employees from retaliation when they (1) disclose information that they reasonably believe to violate state, federal, or local laws or regulations, or (2) refused to participate in any activity that would violate state, federal, or local laws or regulations.This protection applies whether the employee complains (a) externally to a government or law enforcement agency or to a public body conducting an investigation, inquiry or hearing, or (b) internally to “a person with authority over the employee or another employee who has the authority to investigate, discover, or correct the violation or noncompliance” (e.g., their manager or HR).

    Employees are protected even if the disclosures were part of their job duties (so for example, a safety officer is still protected when speaking out about unsafe conditions). Family members of a person who has, or was perceived to have, engaged in protected activities are also protected from retaliation.

    Despite these protections, research has shown that when discrimination or harassment is reported, the consequences can be dire: an estimated 75% of employees who speak out against workplace mistreatment faced some form of retaliation.

  • A whistleblower's whistle

    2014 will be the year of the whistleblower in California.

    Here’s why: On January 1, 2014, new laws (AB 263, SB 496, and SB 666) went into effect that fixed major gaps in Labor Code § 1102.5, the California whistleblower protection law. These are gaps that you probably didn’t even know existed . . . .