Why Are Workplaces Still Not Ready For Pregnant Workers?

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The majority of new moms say they worked while they were pregnant, yet their employers often failed to accommodate their pregnancies before giving birth or their needs afterward, according to a new survey from the National Partnership for Women & Families.

The organizations surveyed more than 1,000 women between the ages of 18 and 45 who had given birth between July 2011 and June 2012. Nearly two-thirds of the women reported being employed during their pregnancies, with more than half working full time. And many of them needed some changes to continue working while also maintaining their health: 71 percent needed more frequent breaks, 61 percent needed to change their schedules or take leave time to get health care, more than half needed a change in duties such as taking on less heavy lifting or getting more chances to sit, and 40 percent needed another workplace adjustment.

Yet many said they either didn’t bring up their needs for accommodation while they were pregnant, possibly out of fear of repercussions or refusal, or had them rejected outright. More than 40 percent who needed more breaks never asked about them, and of those who did, 5 percent were rejected. Nearly 40 percent who needed to change their responsibilities never brought it up, and 9 percent who did were denied. More than a quarter who needed to change their schedules or take time off didn’t raise their need while 9 percent were rejected. While the report notes that most employers who were asked for an accommodation honor the requests, the percent who are denied is still troubling. “Based on estimates of the number of employed women who give birth annually, this means that more than one-quarter million women are denied their requests each year, threatening the health of women and their children.” It also notes that a “significant number” of those who were denied said their employer claimed that it wasn’t obligated to honor their pregnancy-related requests.

These problems are also much more likely to plague low-income women and women of color. More women who held part-time jobs, low-wage jobs, had only a high school degree, or were of color were more likely to need an accommodation.

And they aren’t just an inconvenience. Many women have reported losing their babies because their employers failed to accommodate their needs. Others experience financial hardships if they are forced onto unpaid leave or to leave their jobs altogether. These problems are also growing: pregnancy discrimination charges filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission rose by 65 percent between 1992 and 2007.

While the Pregnancy Discrimination Act bars employers from discriminating on the basis of pregnancy or childbirth, pregnant workers are still often forced out of their jobs or made to work in unsafe conditions with little recourse. Some states have taken action to better protect them: Alaska, California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Louisiana, and Texas have passed laws requiring reasonable accommodations for pregnant workers. Some cities, like New York City, have done the same. The federal Pregnant Workers Fairness Act was introduced in May to protect all of the country’s pregnant workers, but it didn’t even get a hearing.

The problems didn’t end after these women gave birth, however. In the National Partnership’s follow up survey, more than one in four who went back to work at the same place said they experienced bias thanks to being perceived as having less “desire, ability or commitment” to doing their jobs. This had real impacts, with nearly 20 percent saying they lost an opportunity for a raise or promotion, 17 percent having their hours reduced against their wishes, and 16 percent having their responsibilities reduced. Nearly 60 percent also reported that they faced challenges in breastfeeding at work, with many denied a place to express or a break to do so, despite the fact that the Affordable Care Act requires employers to honor those needs.

Mothers face other forms of discrimination when they return to their jobs. Mothers earn $17 less per week at the median than working women without children, but fathers see a $147 bonus. Motherhood in general puts a huge damper on women’s wage growth: women see a similar increase in earnings as men through age 30, but when they hit that age and tend to start having children, their growth slows, all but stopping altogether by age 39.