The House took the time to vote on and pass a bill banning abortion services at 20 weeks after fertilization on Tuesday, reducing women’s access to reproductive care and potentially skirting the constitution. Yet a bill that is important to women’s health continues to languish: the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, which requires employers to offer “reasonable accommodations” to their pregnant workers. That bill was reintroduced on May 14 and, as Kay Steiger reports, “has yet to garner even a hearing, let alone a vote.”
But a new report released on Tuesday by the National Women’s Law Center offers concrete evidence that pregnant workers face discrimination on the job. Women can still be fired today for becoming pregnant, despite the outlawing of discrimination based on pregnancy or the requirement to accommodate workers with disabilities. They can be forced out of their jobs, put on leave, or denied simple accommodations such as providing a stool, allowing food and drink on the job, or shifting heavy lifting duties.
The report makes it clear that this is a big problem facing working women who become pregnant:
- Today, nearly two-thirds of first-time mothers work while pregnant, compared to less than half in the 1960s.
- Almost nine out of ten first-time mothers who worked while pregnant stayed on the job into their last two months of pregnancy, and more than 80 percent worked into their last month of pregnancy.
- More than 40 percent of full-time low-wage workers report that they’re not allowed to decide when they take their breaks.
- Women who work jobs traditionally held by men make more – 20 to 30 percent more than traditionally female jobs – but they can be pushed out of these positions when employers fail to accommodate their pregnancies.
- The average cost of prenatal care and delivery is more than $7,500, an out of pocket expense that few unemployed people can afford.
- Pregnant workers who are denied even minor accommodations can risk complications such as preterm birth, low birth weight, pregnancy-induced hypertension and preeclampsia, miscarriage, and congenital anomalies.
- The majority of employers who provide accommodations to employees with disabilities report that they didn’t impose any new costs, and of those who did report a cost, most said it was $500 or less.
- Research shows positive business impacts from providing accommodations to employees, such as increased retention, productivity, safety, and employee commitment as well as reduced absenteeism.
The report also includes first-hand stories to back up the statistics. Amy Crosby, a cleaner at a hospital in Florida, started getting intense shooting pains up her back and arms from exacerbated carpal tunnel. When she brought in a doctor’s note saying she wasn’t to lift more than 20 pounds, the hospital refused to make any accommodations and put her on 12 weeks of unpaid leave, threatening that she would be considered to have “voluntarily resigned” if she didn’t return without restrictions after the leave.
Svetlana Arizanovska miscarried when Walmart put her back on heavy lifting duties after initially reassigning her to the toothbrush aisle. When she became pregnant again four months later, she submitted a note from her doctor with a lifting restriction only to find out that Walmart has a policy that employees who aren’t disabled can’t be reassigned to another position, despite that option being available to those with disabilities.
In her second pregnancy, Yvette asked her manager if she could avoid doing any heavy lifting. “He actually responded by giving me more heavy lifting to do,” she says. “I think he hoped I would quit.” The pregnancy ended in a miscarriage. When she got a doctor’s note with a lifting restriction for the next pregnancy, she was fired.
Discrimination against pregnant women is widespread and growing. More than 3,700 pregnancy discrimination charges were filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission last year and complaints rose 65 percent between 1992 and 2007.
While three federal laws – the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, and the Family and Medical Leave Act – offer some rights, and a few states go further, the NWLC report notes that courts have misinterpreted these laws and denied women protection. Employers are also misinterpreting and misapplying the laws. The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act would make pregnant workers’ rights clear across the board.