Pregnancy and Disability « Law Offices of Timothy Bowles | Top Employment Law Firm in Los Angeles

Pregnancy and Disability

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California Employers’ Obligations to Accommodate May Not End After  Providing the Required Four Month Leave

A recent California Court of Appeal case – Sanchez v. Swissport, Inc. (February 21, 2014), 213 California Appellate Reporter, fourth series (Cal.App.4th)  1331 –  confirms that employers must comply with both the Pregnancy Disability Leave Law (PDLL) law and the wider protections for women disabled due to pregnancy under in the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA).

The PDLL requires any employer with four or more persons on payroll to provide a worker up to four months of unpaid leave for her pregnancy, delivery and newborn care.  Pregnant employees have those rights even if they must go out on such leave within days of taking on new employment.  These protections extend to full time and part-time workers alike.

The FEHA also requires any employer with four or more employees to provide disabled individuals equal employment opportunity if such persons are able to perform the essential functions of the job position in question with reasonable accommodation as necessary.  However, an employer is not required to accommodate such a worker if such action would create undue hardship on that company’s operations.  For example, a business may decline to hire a blind person for a truck driving position (since accommodation would be too burdensome on the company) but likely may not decline to hire a qualified computer programmer because he or she cannot walk (since accommodation for sitting at a terminal is probably a simple, inexpensive matter).

In the above case, Ana Sanchez alleged Swissport employed her for some two years (mid-2007 to mid-2009).  In early 2009, she requested and received a temporary leave for medically required time away on her high-risk pregnancy.  While she then had to be away from the job until that October to give birth and attend to newborn care – obviously more than four months later — Ms. Sanchez alleged that “very soon after she was scheduled to give birth, she would have returned to work, with the need for only minimal accommodations, if any, in order to perform the essential function[s] of her job.” 213 Cal.App.4th at 1334-1335.

Ms. Sanchez claimed that Swissport nevertheless terminated her in July on the company’s contention it had no further obligation to accommodate her once she had been absent for the four months under the PDLL.  Ms. Sanchez also asserted that prior to her termination, Swissport never contacted her “to engage her in a timely, good faith interactive process in order to identify available accommodations, such as the extended leave of absence she had requested, so that she could remain employed.” Finally, she alleged that “the reasonable accommodations necessitated by her pregnancy and pregnancy-related disabilities would not have created an undue hardship upon [Swissport], nor would said accommodations have adversely impacted, in any way, the operation of [its] business.” 213 Cal.App.4th at 1335.

Swissport convinced the trial judge to dismiss the case, on its claim that its obligations to accommodate Ms. Sanchez’s pregnancy ended after it provided the four month leave.  The California Court of Appeal disagreed and allowed Ms. Sanchez to continue her suit.   An employer’s compliance with PDLL does not fulfill its obligations to comply with the wider disability protections under the FEHA.  “We conclude that … the plain language of the PDLL … makes clear that its remedies augment, rather than supplant, those set forth elsewhere in the FEHA. By its terms, the PDLL provides that its remedies are ‘in addition to’ those governing pregnancy, childbirth, and pregnancy-related medical conditions set forth in the FEHA.”  213 Cal.App.4th at  1338.

This decision underscores the importance of employer’s open and constructive communication with any worker seeking time away from the job due to pregnancy, child birth or newborn care.  It is a business’s obligation to ensure it seeks to understand and reasonably accommodate such conditions short of undue hardship to its operations.  This is particularly critical in instances where an employee is requesting such accommodations after she has expended her maximum four month time away under the PDLL.

Please contact attorneys Tim Bowles, Cindy Bamforth, or Helena Kobrin for assistance in this highly sensitive area of employee relations.

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