On Thursday, the Florida Supreme Court ruled 6-1 that a state law barring discrimination based on gender can cover claims of pregnancy discrimination. It’s an important ruling for pregnant workers in the state, but
also highlights the need for updated protections for pregnant workers nationwide.
Peguy Delva, who filed the case, worked as a front desk manager for the Continental Group, a property management firm. She claimed that once her employer found out she was pregnant, the firm would not allow her to cover other workers’ shifts nor would the company schedule her for work after her maternity leave was up. Delva sued under the state’s 1992 Florida Civil Rights Act, claiming the firm’s conduct amounted to pregnancy discrimination in violation of the act. The law bars employers from discriminating based on “race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, handicap, or marital status.” But Delva lost her claims at both the trial court and court of appeals after both courts concluded that while it was clear Delva had suffered from discrimination, the Florida Civil Rights Act did not cover claims of pregnancy discrimination because “pregnancy” was not a protected status listed under the law.
Last week’s decision reverses that conclusion. “Indeed, the capacity to become pregnant is one of the most significant and obvious distinctions between the female and male sexes,” the court wrote. For this reason, the court held, discrimination based on pregnancy is in fact discrimination based on sex and therefore covered under the statute.
Whether or not state civil rights law covers pregnancy discrimination claims is an important question. In 1978, Congress amended Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to add the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA), which explicitly prohibits sex discrimination on the basis of pregnancy. While the PDA offers an important first step in protecting pregnant workers’ rights, the statute doesn’t cover all employers, leaving many workers vulnerable to on-the-job discrimination. Furthermore, many states, like Florida, have civil rights laws that don’t expressly identify pregnancy as a protection, leaving employers an opportunity to argue their discriminatory conduct based on a worker’s pregnancy is not unlawful.
The impact from the gaps in protections under the law is significant to pregnant workers and their families. A report released last summer by the National Women’s Law Center and A Better Balance found that pregnant workers face systematic discrimination on the job, including refusals for basic accommodations of the pregnancy or forcing pregnant workers to take unpaid leave.
The Florida Supreme Court’s decision
arrived at a time when the state legislature was working to fill the gap between state civil rights protection and federal law. The Florida Senate unanimously approved SB 220, which would add pregnancy to the list of protected classes under the state law. Meanwhile, HB 105, a companion measure, is ready for a vote. Should the measures be enacted, they would codify into statute the Florida Supreme Court’s decision.