It’s been illegal to discriminate against pregnant women in the workplace for decades, so that must mean that it doesn’t happen anymore, right? Unfortunately, like many illegal things, it just keeps happening.
For 35 years, it has been illegal to discriminate against pregnant women in the workplace. If employers can reasonably provide accommodations for pregnant women, and if they would provide the same accommodations for an employee with a disability, they have to accommodate a pregnant woman, too. Often, though, this doesn’t happen, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
When an employer discriminates against a pregnant woman, it could look like a teacher being asked not to teach certain high-level, high-demand classes because of her leave, or it could look like it does for so many women who ask not to have to do the heavy lifting that their job requires, but who are denied. Women in low-wage jobs like cleaning, moving furniture or other heavy objects, or other domestic work are both more likely to need accommodations during their pregnancy and more likely not to get them. When they cannot perform their duties without the accommodations, they get fired from their jobs for lack of productivity.
Take, for example, Natasha Jackson, a former employer of Rent-A-Center in Charleston, South Carolina. Part of her job was to move furniture and other heavy objects, and her fellow employees were helping her out when she became pregnant in 2008. As she describes it, “one morning I came in and I was told I had to wait to clock in until I spoke to both the district manager and the head of human resources.” They told her she shouldn’t be lifting and put her on two weeks paid leave, asking her to get a form filled out by her doctor. Her doctor wrote that she shouldn’t lift over 20 pounds, and then Rent-A-Center put her on unpaid leave indefinitely.
Jackson isn’t the only one with this story. Amy Crosby was 23 weeks pregnant when her heavy lifting at Tallahassee Memorial Hospital where she was a cleaner made her carpal tunnel so much worse that she couldn’t even lift her arm anymore. She says, “I couldn’t sleep at night because my arm and my hand were numb.” Her employer told her she couldn’t work if she couldn’t lift, and placed her on unpaid leave and she is now slated to be fired.
This sort of thing happens all the time. The National Women’s Law Center and A Better Balance have recently compiled a report entitled “It Shouldn’t Be a Heavy Lift: Fair Treatment for Pregnant Workers,” which finds that, even though employees with physical disabilities or injuries are accommodated on the job, pregnant women are not. Dina Bakst, co-president of A Better Balance, says: “This is really shameful… We run a legal clinic, and we hear stories like these all the time. It’s a significant and widespread problem.” Emily Martin of the National Women’s Law Center says employers openly fire women for being pregnant all the time. She says, “We don’t have numbers, but looking at published cases, it seems to be a story that’s repeated again and again.”
This blatant discrimination needs to end. Luckily, organizations like the National Women’s Law Center and A Better Balance are researching and filing complaints against employers who fire pregnant women because of their pregnancies. The most important thing for pregnant women to remember is to stand up for yourself and your baby and, if you feel you are being discriminated against, find someone who can help you fight back.
Photo Credit: Teza Harinaivo Ramiandrisoa