Pregnancy is a transformative journey filled with anticipation, excitement, and unique challenges. However, questions and concerns regarding their career and workplace implications may loom overhead for expecting mothers. From subtle biases to outright hostility or fear of termination, women navigating pregnancy in the workplace can encounter a myriad of hurdles that threaten their career advancement, financial stability, and overall well-being.

This blog will provide a high-level overview of the nuances of pregnancy discrimination in Alberta’s workplaces, shedding light on legal protections, common challenges expectant employees face, and possible avenues for recourse. It will also outline employer obligations, employee rights, and the steps employees may take if they face workplace discrimination.

What is Pregnancy Discrimination?

Every individual should thrive professionally, irrespective of their parental status. However, this is not always the case for expectant mothers. Pregnancy discrimination can occur when an employer treats a pregnant employee unfavourably. Maternity discrimination is also closely related to pregnancy discrimination, which may see an employee treated differently while on maternity leave or upon recent return from maternity leave.

The Alberta Human Rights Act prohibits discrimination on several grounds, including pregnancy, which is covered under discrimination on the basis of gender. This legislation ensures that pregnant employees are treated equally and are afforded the same rights, entitlements, opportunities and benefits as their non-pregnant colleagues. Furthermore, under the Alberta Human Rights Act, employers are prohibited from:

  • Bullying an employee based on their pregnancy;
  • Laying off or demoting an employee based on their pregnancy;
  • Asking an employee candidate if they are pregnant or plan to have children; and
  • Preventing an employee from using their workplace benefit plan while on maternity leave.

Examples of Pregnancy Discrimination

Pregnancy discrimination may take various forms, including, but not limited to:

  • An employer firing an employee after learning of their pregnancy,
  • A pregnant employee being passed over for a promotion in favour of a less qualified candidate,
  • An employer’s refusal to make reasonable accommodations for a pregnant employee, or
  • A pregnant employee being subjected to jokes or degrading comments about her pregnancy.

Employer Obligations to Pregnant Employees 

Employers are responsible for fostering a safe work environment for pregnant employees, ensuring they are free from practical jokes or harassment from co-workers. Employers cannot treat a pregnant employee differently and cannot base an employee’s termination on absenteeism due to medical issues during their pregnancy. While addressing claims of discrimination is often a reactive process, employers should ensure they have clear, proactive policies in place to prevent discrimination from occurring in the first place. 

The Alberta Human Rights Act also requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for pregnant employees to the point of undue hardship. For example, a pregnant employee may require modified work duties if they cannot lift heavy items, or an employer may modify an employee’s work hours to accommodate medical appointments. Employers are not allowed to fire an employee solely based on their pregnancy or refuse to hire a prospective employee based on their pregnancy. Further, employers cannot discriminate against pregnant employees or candidates when hiring. 

Pregnant Employee Rights and Obligations in the Workplace

Employees have a right to be protected against pregnancy discrimination throughout their pregnancy and upon their return to work following maternity leave. Employers who are found to have discriminated against a pregnant employee can face serious consequences, such as financial and reputation implications. Moreover, while job security may be at the top of a pregnant employee’s mind, it is important to know that employees have the right to return to their jobs after their maternity leave. If an employer attempts to hinder this right or terminates an employee based on their pregnancy or in relation to their maternity leave, this violates Alberta law.

If an employee has been discriminated against in relation to their pregnancy or maternity leave, they may commence a claim under the Alberta Human Rights Act within one year from the date the discrimination occurred. Therefore, speaking with an employment lawyer as soon as possible is important if you believe you may have been the subject of discrimination.

Although employers have legislative obligations towards pregnant employees, employees also bear certain responsibilities towards their employer to help facilitate the accommodation process. For instance, while a pregnant employee is entitled to reasonable accommodations, obtaining a doctor’s note outlining the necessary accommodations may be required upon request from their employer. 

What To Do If You Are Facing Pregnancy Discrimination

If you believe you have been discriminated against in the workplace due to your pregnancy, it is critical to take the appropriate steps to protect your rights and seek legal advice to ensure you have a comprehensive understanding of your options to move forward.

It is important to gather and document any evidence of discrimination, including written and verbal communications regarding your pregnancy made by your employer or colleagues. If accommodations are necessary, having a doctor’s note outlining what these accommodations are can be helpful, even if not requested by your employer. Finally, speaking with a knowledgeable employment lawyer as soon as possible is imperative to learn more about your rights, obligations and options. Depending on the circumstances of your case, they will be able to help you determine whether to file a complaint with the Alberta Human Rights Commission or pursue legal action against your employer for damages due to constructive or wrongful dismissal. 

Getz Collins and Associates Employment Lawyers Provide Practice Advice on Workplace Discrimination Matters

The experienced labour and employment lawyers at Getz Collins and Associates regularly advise employees and employers on workplace issues, including pregnancy discrimination, wrongful terminations, and employee performance management. With offices in Strathmore and Calgary, our lawyers help clients explore avenues for early dispute resolution and provide skilled advocacy in matters requiring a Tribunal or Court intervention. To speak with one of our employment law team members regarding your discrimination case, contact us online or call our office at (587) 391-5600.