Melissa Josephs on paid sick days and pregnancy discrimination

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mothers at work 

pregnancy discrimination and paid sick days

I'm so excited that we've had the opportunity once again to collaborate with the amazing organization, Women Employed in Chicago. Women Employed is a nonprofit dedicated to serving women in the workplace. WE works with lawmakers to pass fair workplace legislation, with companies to implement fair policies, and informs and urges the public to support equal opportunity legislation. One of the reasons why I admire this organization so much is because they shine a light on what it's truly like to be a working mother for many women in the U.S. 

For today's article, I wanted our readers to be aware of and have a better understanding of the paid sick time and pregnancy discrimination laws that have been passed in Chicago and Cook County. I had the opportunity to speak with Melissa Josephs, Women Employed's Director of Equal Opportunity, who helped shepherd the passage of the laws that came into effect this past summer. Today we're going to give you a bit of background on these new policies, and what they mean for pregnant women and mothers. 


Thank you so much for doing this interview with me, Melissa. As I’m sure you know… a lot of us don’t always know what rights we have at work.  The point of this interview is to help women understand their rights regarding paid sick time and pregnancy discrimination. To start, could you tell us a little bit about the paid sick time law that went into effect this summer in Chicago and the Cook County suburbs? 

The sick time ordinances in Chicago and in Cook County were passed last year and went into effect on July 1, and are almost identical. The laws allow employees to earn sick time one hour at a time for every 40 hours worked, up to a maximum of 40 hours/five sick days a year.

Because it takes so long to earn sick time (a full-time worker would earn 40 hours after working 40 weeks) the laws allow a worker to carryover half of the time they have earned but not used, up to 20 hours, to the next year (e.g., if they know they want to use the sick time for an operation they are having early the next year).

The laws allow, in addition to the 20-hour carryover, 40 hours of carryover to be used for an FMLA reason if eligible (i.e. you work for an employer with 50 or more employees and meet other requirements). They can be used for new-parent leave, for the worker’s serious illness, or for that of a family member.


How does this law help mothers? Does paid sick leave apply when a mom’s child is home sick from daycare or school?

Yes, the laws allow an employee to use sick time if she or a family member is sick. In addition, it allows an employee to use sick time to care for a child whose school or place of care has been closed by order of a public official due to a public health emergency – when you often don’t have notice and don’t have the time to find a caregiver.

Many women struggle with serious morning sickness during pregnancy. Do women who experience pregnancy-related sickness or other complications receive coverage under this law?

Yes. These sick time laws can be used for pregnancy-related illnesses when employees need to stay home from work. The laws also allow use of sick time to go to medical appointments.

An employer cannot make you use more time than you need, so the minimum increment of leave cannot exceed 4 hours per day. For example, you may only want to use four hours to stay home or go to a doctor’s appointment.

An employer cannot discipline you for not giving notice for using sick time, such as a point system that can lead to termination, or as part of an absence-control policy. An employer may require up to 7 days notice before leave is taken if need for sick time is foreseeable. If it's not foreseeable an employer may only require notice to be given that day as soon as is practicable.


At this point I’d like to ask you a few questions on the topic of pregnancy discrimination. In January 2015, Illinois passed a law that protects pregnant women at work. So our readers know: Pregnant women and new mothers can ask for reasonable accommodations from their employees without risk of consequence (i.e. asking for water/breaks, help with heavy lifting, a private space to pump breastmilk). It is also illegal to fire or refuse to hire a woman because she is pregnant, is recovering from childbirth, or has a pregnancy or childbirth-related medical condition.

With that in mind, many women who are pregnant or who plan to become pregnant at some point in their careers remain concerned that their employers won’t take them as seriously. They’re worried about being placed on the “mommy track”. If a woman is asked by her employer (i.e. in an interview) if she plans on becoming pregnant, does she have to answer? Are employers allowed to ask women questions of that nature?

The asking of the question is not illegal. It is how the employer may use the information that may be illegal, i.e., if they hire someone who will not get pregnant instead of you.  But since you would have to prove this, which could be hard to do, especially if you’re asked at a job interview and don’t get the job, you should try and handle it when you are asked. This can be done without refusing to answer the question but by learning what your employer wants to know about how this impacts your ability to do the job. For example, you can ask the employer if they want to know whether you’re willing to travel for the job.

Whether or not a woman plans on having children should not be used against her by an employer. It’s rarely used against men who plan on having children, because the employer assumes the man will be more committed to the job as he needs the money. But so do women. An employer may assume that the woman will want to take time off if she has a baby and a man won’t because even men who take parental leave usually don’t take as much time as a woman since a woman may be recovering from giving birth.

But why is there a “mommy track” for women who may take off for a few months but not a “heart attack track” or “stroke track”? When Sen. Mark Kirk had a stroke he was off work recovering for a year, during which time he was still paid and he was not replaced. As one of our only two Senators we managed without him. The same with the CEO of United Airlines who had a heart attack one month into his new job and was off for six months. He, too, was still paid and they managed without him until he returned.  Employers should not assume that if any of their employees take a family or medical leave that 1) they cannot get along without them (it’s more expensive to replace an employee than to hold their job) and 2) that they will not be returning.

What else would you like to see change for pregnant women and new mothers in the workplace?

Paid family and medical leave for an employee’s serious illness or that of a family member, or for new-parent leave that applies to workers at any size employer. The current unpaid FMLA only applies to employers with 50 or more employees. This could be done with a law that sets up a program funded similarly to social security, or done voluntarily if done by all employers. You can learn more about that here.

Thank you to Melissa and to Women Employed!

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Melissa Josephs has expertise in a range of workplace issues such as paid sick days, sexual harassment, fair wages, work and family, and affirmative action. A member of the WE staff since 1990, Josephs promotes passage and effective implementation of equal employment opportunity laws and regulations at the state and federal levels. Examples of issues she works on include campaigns to increase the minimum wage and pass paid sick days legislation in Illinois and at the federal level, and federal campaigns to strengthen anti-discrimination laws such as the Equal Pay Act and the Pregnancy Discrimination Act. 

Melissa has a B.A. in English and Journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a J.D. from IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law


you can learn more by checking out these links:

pregnancy and employment in illinois

more about your rights when you are pregnant

paid sick time

Grow, TalkNurit Siegal2 Comments