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Maine Human Rights Commission Confirms Broad Protections for Pregnant Employees

On September 18, 2023, the Maine Human Rights Commission considered a case in which an employee alleged that she was denied reasonable accommodation for a pregnancy-related condition and found in the employee’s favor.

In Rudolph v. Eastern Maine Healthcare System d/b/a Northern Light Health & Northern Light Regional Health Facilities d/b/a Northern Light Maine Coast Hospital, the Complainant, an ICU nurse, provided her employer a note from her doctor that restricted her from lifting more than 30 pounds for the last trimester of her pregnancy.  She alleged that after presenting the restriction to her employer that they denied her request for accommodation and instead put her on an unpaid medical leave which left her with no income leading up to the birth of her child and uncertainty regarding whether she would be able to use leave to spend time with her newborn baby.

The case arose under 5 M.R.S. §4572-A(2-A), which is a section that was added to the MHRA in 2019.  The new provision makes it unlawful employment discrimination when employers fail to provide an employee with a reasonable accommodation for a pregnancy-related condition unless the employer demonstrates that the requested accommodation would impose on undue hardship on the employer.

The Investigator in the case issued a recommended decision finding no reasonable grounds of discrimination and indicated that an employee seeking an accommodation for a pregnancy related condition under this section was required to show that their accommodation would not preclude them from performing all of the essential functions of their job and that the Complainant had not made that showing.

At the hearing on September 18, 2023, Complainant argued that the requirement of showing that an employee seeking accommodation for a pregnancy-related condition could perform each of the essential functions of the job was an incorrect reading of the law which inappropriately imported a requirement for disability-related accommodations into the MHRA’s section for pregnancy-related accommodations. As grounds, Complainant pointed out that the plain language of the statute did not contain this requirement, that the legislative history showed that the Legislature had considered and then rejected this approach, and that the 2019 provision made clear that the Legislature intended that accommodations for pregnancy-related conditions may include avoiding an essential function of the job for a temporary period including a list of examples of accommodations for pregnancy-related conditions such as “temporary relief from lifting requirements” and “temporary transfer to less strenuous or hazardous work”.

The MHRC agreed with the Complainant and voted 4-1 to find reasonable grounds that Northern Light/Maine Coast Hospital violated the MHRA when they denied the requested accommodation.

This finding by the MHRA is important because it highlights that employees who require accommodations for pregnancy-related conditions are entitled to a broader range of accommodations than what is available to a person seeking accommodation for a disability.  So long as a requested accommodation does not create an “undue hardship” for an employer then it must be provided.

The Complainant in this matter is represented by Maine Employee Rights Group attorney Chad T. Hansen.

If your employer denies your request for a pregnancy-related accommodation you may have legal recourse and should contact an experienced employment lawyer to discuss your rights.

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