Mom-Friendly Policies May Be A Nice Perk But Could Constitute Gender Discrimination

The EEOC, and at least some Plaintiffs’ lawyers, are taking the position that employers may not offer more parental leave to a birth mother than to a father, unless justified by medical necessity. Any other outcome, they claim, would constitute discrimination against men on the basis of sex.

This Summer (on June 25, 2015), the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued the EEOC Enforcement Guidance on Pregnancy Discrimination and Related Issues on June 25, 2015. The EEOC’s new guidance states that any parental leave must be provided to similarly situated men and women on the same terms. Further, according to this guidance, companies may offer longer leaves to biological mothers than to fathers, only if the difference in length of leave is justified by a medical necessity. The EEOC gives the example of the following policy that complies with Title VII: offering “pregnant employees up to 10 weeks of paid pregnancy-related medical leave for pregnancy and childbirth as part of its short-term disability insurance” and allowing all new parents six weeks of parental leave. The EEOC states that this policy gives an equal amount of parental leave and allows women who give birth an additional 10 weeks to recover from pregnancy and childbirth. Although one may question whether this adds clarity or confusion to the issue, it appears that the EEOC is attempting to carve out a “medical necessity” exception to a rule that otherwise requires uniform treatment.

At least one high profile employer has had to deal with a claim of discrimination along the lines suggested by the EEOC. Last month, CNN and Turner Broadcasting settled an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) charge with a former CNN correspondent, Josh Levs, who claimed that the company’s paid parental leave discriminated against biological fathers. According to Mr. Levs, CNN’s parental leave policy provided biological fathers only two weeks of paid parental leave and allowed ten weeks of paid leave for biological mothers, as well as to all parents (regardless of sex) who adopted. In October 2013, Mr. Levs filed a charge of discrimination alleging that CNN’s policy violated Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act. The settlement between the parties was not disclosed, but Time Warner voluntarily changed their parental leave policy to allow all parents—biological mothers, biological fathers, and adoptive parents—to receive six weeks of paid leave following childbirth or adoption. In addition, the new policy allows biological mothers to receive an additional six weeks of leave with the possibility of more leave if they have an unforeseen medical need.

What is the bottom line for employers? Employers should review their leave policies to ensure that they are compliant with Title VII, including by looking for unintended negative impact from policies that were designed to be generous to new mothers. As outlined by the EEOC, employers should consider distinguishing in their leave policies parental leave that is related to a physical limitation imposed by pregnancy or childbirth and leave that is provided for the purpose of caring or bonding with a child.

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