New Law Requires Illinois Employers to Reasonably Accommodate Pregnant Employees and Applicants
Effective January 1, 2015, Illinois employers must reasonably accommodate temporary conditions relating to pregnancy, for employees and applicants alike. This new requirement applies in much the same way employers must reasonably accommodate employees' and applicants' disabilities under the federal Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA).
The amendments to the Illinois Human Rights Act increase employers' responsibilities, regarding their treatment of pregnant employees, in a manner that goes beyond the federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act. The new state law adds pregnant women to the list of classes of people protected against discrimination, and requires employers to reasonably accommodate employees and applicants for any "medical or common condition" related to pregnancy or childbirth. It also makes it illegal to refuse to hire, to fire, or to retaliate against any employee or applicant for requesting such reasonable accommodations.
Under the new law, “reasonable accommodations” are defined as "modifications or adjustments" to applying for a job, the working environment, or customarily performed essential job functions.
Just as with the ADA, however, if an employer can demonstrate that the requested accommodation would impose an undue hardship on its business operations, then the employer need not accommodate the employee or applicant. The new law defines an undue hardship as an accommodation that is "prohibitively expensive or disruptive."
Notably, the new state law does not require an employer to create new jobs for pregnant employees and applicants, unless the employer does so for other classes of employees who need accommodations. This means that, for example, employers may still refuse to create light-duty jobs for pregnant employees if the employer also refuses to create light-duty jobs for employees with disabilities.
Just as under the ADA, Illinois employers can require the employee to provide a physician's certification for the requested accommodation. The document should detail the medical justification for the accommodation, and provide a description of the proposed accommodation, why the accommodation is medically advisable, the dates during which the accommodation will be necessary, and the likely duration of the accommodation.
Many employers may have read about arguments presented in December 2014 before the United States Supreme Court, in a case involving United Parcel Service (UPS) and one of its drivers. The employee contends that the ADA, as it is currently written, requires all employers nationwide to treat pregnancy-related conditions in the same way as employers treat other disabilities. Regardless of the outcome of that case, the new Illinois law effectively imposes upon Illinois employers nearly identical responsibilities for reasonably accommodating pregnancy-related conditions as already exist under the ADA for disabilities.
Illinois employers should therefore consider updating their pregnancy and ADA policies to reflect these changes. Additionally, employers should review their job descriptions to specify any essential job functions — such as lifting requirements — that a pregnant or disabled employee or applicant would be required to perform. By creating a more specific job description, an employer increases the likelihood of arguing successfully that accommodating a disabled or pregnant employee’s request would result in an undue hardship to the employer.