Question: One of our waitresses is about eight months pregnant. She looks uncomfortable, and we think the way she looks probably upsets the customers. Can we lay her off now?
Answer: We call this the “pregnant worker” question, and although the circumstances are always a bit different, the key question is the same. Can you lay off a worker because she is pregnant? The answer is “No.”
Under federal law, and most state laws, pregnancy is treated like other possibly disabling conditions. You can’t legally treat pregnant workers differently than you treat other workers… unless the pregnancy interferes with the employee’s ability to do the job.
Be careful to change a pregnant worker’s duties or lay her off ONLY when she or her doctor says her physical condition prevents her from performing her duties.
You could lay off a pregnant employee or change her duties if her appearance interfered with her successfully performing an essential function of her job. This would be quite rare. An example would be an actress hired to play the role of a young, unmarried leading lady in a love story.
Even this situation isn’t necessarily justifiable cause to terminate the actress. Actress Shirley Jones was six or seven months pregnant when she was finishing her role as Marian the Librarian in the movie The Music Man. The director “hid” her condition from the movie viewers with skillful costume design and camera angles. Her love interest in the movie, Robert Preston, didn’t know she was pregnant until the scene late in the movie when the two embraced on the footbridge… and Preston felt the baby kick. Imagine his shock!
Bottom line, in almost every case, laying off a pregnant woman because her appearance might upset customers would be illegal.