Floralba Fernandez Espinal, who works at a thrift store in New York City, is back on the job thanks to new protections offered in the city’s recently enacted Pregnant Workers Fairness Act.
At her job, she has to carry heavy piles of clothing from the storeroom out onto the shop’s floor. But when she was three months pregnant, she was concerned that work would put her baby at risk, given that she had a miscarriage last year. She says other workers had previously been temporarily transferred to different positions such as working the cash register, so she asked her boss if she could do the same. Her manager told her to bring in a doctor’s note, but when she complied, she was told she was being put on unpaid leave until she could work without any restrictions.
Up until January of this year, Fernandez wouldn’t have had much legal recourse. But in September, New York City passed a bill that requires employers to provide their pregnant workers with reasonable accommodations, such as assistance with manual labor, rest breaks, and a period of recovery from childbirth. If an employer fails to do so, workers can bring actions against them in civil court as well as bring a complaint to the city’s Commission on Human Rights, which can order a business to hire back an employee, pay backpay or compensation for damages, and halt its practices. Employers can also be fined as much as $250,000 or even be found guilty of a misdemeanor, with possible jail time.
When she was placed on unpaid leave, Fernandez contacted Dina Bakst, co-president of A Better Balance, who sent a letter to the thrift store demanding that she be reinstated with accommodations and backpay. After several rounds of negotiations with Bakst and her union, management agreed to reinstate her doing light duty, which complies with her doctor’s orders, and she is now pricing and hanging clothes. It will also pay her $1,088 in backpay and maintain her level of seniority.
Fernandez’s story has a happy ending, but for many women the outcome has been devastating. A woman in California has sued her employer for the death of her baby after she had a miscarriage when supervisors failed to accommodate her pregnancy. Other women similarly report having lost babies because they were forced to continue doing heavy manual labor. The hardship can also be financial when, like Fernandez, they are placed on unpaid leave or are otherwise forced out of their jobs and have to go without pay.
Today, nearly two-thirds of first-time mothers work while pregnant, with more than 80 percent working into the last month of their pregnancies. While the Pregnancy Discrimination Act forbids discrimination on the basis of pregnancy or childbirth, employers all too often fail to adjust when their workers need small changes to stay on the job. More than a quarter million women are denied their requests for an accommodation every year, and far more never even ask, possibly for fear of retribution or the assumption that their needs won’t be met.
New York City isn’t the only place that has taken steps to remedy this situation. New Jersey also passed a Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, and West Virginia is currently considering one. The same idea has been proposed multiple times at the federal level to make sure all pregnant workers get better treatment, but it hasn’t even gotten a hearing.