Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn just signed legislation requiring Illinois employers to provide reasonable accommodation to employees affected by pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions, and to take steps to prevent and address sexual harassment against unpaid interns as well as employees. These amendments to the Illinois Human Rights Act (the Act) will take effect January 1, 2015.

Reasonable Accommodations for Pregnancy

The first amendment to the Act will require employers to provide reasonable accommodations for medical or common conditions related to pregnancy or childbirth, unless the employer can demonstrate that accommodation would impose undue hardship – meaning accommodation is prohibitively expensive or disruptive in light of its effect on the employer’s finances, operations, and other employees. Employers need not provide an accommodation unless an applicant or employee requests one; in fact, absent such a request, an employer cannot force an applicant or employee to accept a pregnancy-related accommodation.

The Act lists the following examples of possible “reasonable accommodation” for employees affected by pregnancy, childbirth or related medical conditions: more frequent or longer bathroom breaks; breaks for increased water intake or periodic rest; private non-bathroom space for expressing breast milk and breastfeeding; seating; assistance with manual labor; light duty; temporary transfer to a less strenuous or hazardous position; acquisition or modification of equipment; job restructuring; a part-time or modified work schedule; appropriate adjustment or modifications of examinations, training materials, or policies; reassignment to a vacant position; time off to recover from conditions related to childbirth; and a leave of absence.

Employers may request that the applicant or employee provide documentation from her health care provider confirming the need for a requested accommodation.

Sexual Harassment Protection for Unpaid Interns

The Act will also now protect unpaid interns against sexual harassment in the workplace. The amendment expands the Act’s definition of “employee” to include unpaid interns for the purposes of sexual harassment. Under the amended Act, an “unpaid intern” is a person who: the employer is not committed to hiring at the conclusion of the internship; agrees that he or she is not entitled to wages for performing work; and performs work that supplements educational training, benefits the intern, does not displace regular employees, is performed under the close supervision of existing staff, and provides no immediate advantage to the employer and may actually impede its operations.

Practical Recommendations for Employers

Before the amendments take effect January 1, 2015, employers should:

  • Review all job descriptions to be sure they contain accurate, up-to-date descriptions of essential job functions
  • Identify changeable barriers to compliance, such as lack of private non-bathroom space for expressing breast milk
  • Update anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies to address pregnancy-related accommodations and sexual harassment of unpaid interns
  • Communicate updated policies to all employees and obtain acknowledgements of their receipt
  • Post updated Illinois Human Rights Act posters