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Is It Discrimination? In Specialty Roles, Lines Are Blurred For Fired Workers

A recent lawsuit by a former Walt Disney World employee has raised some concern over the topic of pregnancy discrimination for workers in specialty roles. The plaintiff, Krista Crowder, claims she should not have been fired for taking a medically-necessary 11- month leave following her pregnancy.

Before becoming pregnant with twins, Crowder worked for Disney as an aerial performer in Animal Kingdom's Festival of the Lion King show. As part of her role, she was required to strap into a harness and fly over the audience.

Due to the physical demands of the position, Crowder's doctor refused to clear her for return to work until almost a year after she initially went out on maternity leave. When she was finally cleared, she learned that during her 11-month absence she had been fired. She claims she was always under the impression she would be able to return to her job and was blindsided by her termination.

Discrimination Concerns for Specialty Roles

Women are currently protected from being fired for pregnancy leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), but these protections only extend for a period of 12 weeks. Following her C-section surgery, Crowder was physically unable to return to her role within the remaining amount of leave time she had available. She holds that since her inability to return work was directly related to her pregnancy, her firing falls under the umbrella of pregnancy discrimination.

Crowder argues that for specialty roles like hers, the current legal protections are not sufficient. As it stands now, women in these positions are faced with having to make a choice between pregnancy and keeping their jobs. Her lawsuit aims to fix that.

The Current Legal Landscape

Currently, pregnant women in Florida are protected under the rules of the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and the federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA). The state of Florida does not have its own laws regarding pregnancy protection.

Under the current legal landscape, employers are offered some protection in the way of qualification requirements and leave of absence time limits.

Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA)

The Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) does not set forth any requirements for pregnancy or family leave. It does, however, require employers who offer leave for other short-term disabilities extend this option to pregnant women as well.

Under the PDA, an employer may not fire, demote, or refuse to hire a woman because she is pregnant. A pregnant employee may also not be required to stop working due to pregnancy unless she is unable to meet the physical demands of the job.

Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA)

The FMLA gives workers a maximum of 12 weeks off per year. This time may be used to take care of your own medical conditions, care for a family member with serious health concerns, or bond with a new child. Employees are not paid for their time off under FMLA but may use any accrued paid days such as vacation or sick time. Group health coverage must continue while the employee is absent, and he or she must be reinstated to his or her previous position upon return.

Employees must have worked for a company for a minimum of one year to qualify for FMLA. In addition, they are required have worked at least 1,250 hours within the last year. Small companies are also exempt from FMLA requirements, as it only applies to businesses that employ 50 or more employees within a 75-mile radius.

The Bottom Line

Walt Disney World states that it has a long-standing policy against discrimination in the workplace and the company plans to defend itself in court. The decision made in this case will likely impact the future of medical leave for specialty roles. In the meantime, employers should simply take care to follow the guidelines set forth by the current legal statutes.

Although employers should be fair to their employees and always avoid discrimination, it's unfair to ask businesses to hold positions open for indefinite periods of time. Doing so could disrupt business flow and cause a competitive disadvantage.

If you come across a similar incident, use your best judgment. If you're able to hold a position open beyond the limits of the FMLA without serious business disruption, you may consider doing so. Otherwise, you're within your rights to follow the current laws and do what's right for your business.

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