A report released Tuesday by two legal advocacy groups found pregnant workers are routinely discriminated against when they need accommodations due to the physical demands of pregnancy.
The DC-based National Women's Law Center and Better Balance in New York found that women workers around the country, particularly those in low-wage jobs and fields predominately held by men, faced a number of barriers that forced them out of work earlier than planned; caused miscarriages, pregnancy complications and other health problems; and put the women and their families in dire economic straits.
The report calls for the passage of the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, introduced in Congress last month, which seeks to clarify the intention of the 2008 amendment to the Americans with Disabilities Act as it applies to pregnant workers, who are entitled to be accommodated on par with employees with temporary disabilities. The report also calls for the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission (EEOC) to do more to inform and guide employers about their legal obligations to pregnant workers.
The EEOC has litigated a host of gender and pregnancy discrimination cases including the recent appeals court victory in the case of a Texas woman who was fired for asking her employer if she would be able to pump breast milk when she returned to work. But the report's authors want the agency to do more to prevent discrimination from occurring in the first place.
"The thing about pregnancy is that it's a relatively short period of time, and if a woman has to pursue her case through the legal process, probably she's already lost," said Liz Watson with the National Women's Law Center. "The sooner we get clarification from the EEOC about what the law requires, we're going to be able to head a lot of this off."
The report highlights the stories of several women including Peggy Young, who worked for UPS when she said she was told the company's light duty policy did not extend to pregnant workers and that she could not come back to work until she was no longer pregnant because she was "too much of a liability." Young asked the US Supreme Court to review her case after an appeals court ruled that UPS did not violate the 1978 Pregnancy Discrimination Act, which says employers must treat pregnant employees the same as other workers with the similar ability to do their jobs. She lost her health insurance and disability rights related to pregnancy and childbirth. "What started as a very happy pregnancy became one of the most stressful times of my life," she said.
Guadalupe Hernandez (a pseudonym) worked at a fast food restaurant and received excellent performance reviews. But when she became pregnant, her supervisor refused her bathroom breaks and forbade her to drink water on the job although other workers were permitted to do so. He eventually fired her in front of her coworkers. "For the first time in my life, I had to ask for government assistance," she said. "I tried to look for other work, but every time I went to a potential employer they looked at my bellow and said 'no.' My husband, who was not working at the time, my older child and my baby paid the price."
"By all means this is something we are seeking to eradicate," said EEOC spokesperson Justine Lisser. She said EEOC's recently issued strategic enforcement plan for fiscal years 2013 to 2016 will give priority to issues associated with significant demographic changes. A May report by Pew Research found 40 percent of working mothers are now the primary income earners for their families.
"Speaking anecdotally, a lot of it is not subtle compared to other forms of discrimination that we see," said Lisser. "A lot of it is the manager telling the employee, 'We're putting you on reduced hours because pregnant women need to rest; my wife needed to rest, so you need to rest.' "
The economic repercussions of this type of overreach can be devastating for expecting mothers and their families. Other forms of workplace discrimination put the health of expecting mothers at risk. Watson said the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act is a necessity to protect simple accommodations like allowing pregnant workers to stay off high ladders, drink water on the job and sit on a stool instead of stand. Women who work in low-wage jobs where they may have little control over their duties and work conditions and are under close supervision stand to benefit the most from these types of improvements, but Watson said it doesn't end there.
"The more that this right to accommodation becomes more a part of the fabric of the workplace," she said, "it's going to be good for all workers."
Watson thinks employers would benefit, too. She said the employers profiled in the report "are often making decisions that are, frankly, against their economic interest, that are resulting in higher workforce turnover, that are lowering employee morale, that are making it harder for employees to do their jobs." She and her coauthors found the cost of accommodating pregnant workers was zero. The Job Accommodation Network (JAN) has found that half of accommodations for workers with disabilities cost employers nothing, and those that cost, typically involve a one-time outlay of about $500.
In 2006 to 2008, close to 88 percent of mothers who worked while pregnant worked into their last two months of pregnancy, and 82 percent worked into their last month of pregnancy, according to US Census data.