Pregnant Workers At Walmart Fear The Company’s New Policy Won’t Go Far Enough To Protect Them

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"Pregnant Workers At Walmart Fear The Company’s New Policy Won’t Go Far Enough To Protect Them"

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CREDIT: AP

Tiffany Beroid got pregnant while working at Walmart but was fine doing her job until the seventh month of pregnancy. Then her doctor told her that her pregnancy was high risk and she needed to be put on light duty. Yet despite handing a doctor’s note to management, she was told she didn’t qualify because they didn’t have any light duty on her pay scale. “I was forced to take an unpaid leave,” she told ThinkProgress, which she stayed on until six weeks after she had her baby.

It took a financial and health toll on her and her family. “It was really difficult, especially with limited financial means, for us to get by,” she said. Her husband started putting in 18-hour shifts, sometimes working two days at a time. “It took a toll on my other daughter because she wasn’t able to see her father all the time,” she noted. And it added stress to her pregnancy. Her blood pressure would rise and fall with every doctor’s visit. “Every time I went, he told me to be calm, and that’s what I tried to do,” she said. “But it’s hard when you have bills due and not any way to pay them.”

Stories like Tiffany’s may change now that Walmart has changed its policies. On March 5, Walmart quietly issued a new policy for pregnant workers that includes them in its accommodations for disability, first reported by Lydia DePillis at the Washington Post. The new policy says that workers may be eligible for a “reasonable accommodation” if they have a disability, which now includes “a temporary disability caused by pregnancy.”

The change came after a campaign from Cynthia Murray and Mary Watkines, which culminated in their submitting a shareholder proposal to be included in materials for its upcoming annual meeting, crafted with the assistance of the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC) and A Better Balance. Murray says she was galvanized into that action after hearing Beroid’s stories and the stories of other pregnant associates across the country. “We were seeing this over and over and over and we said something really needed to be done about it,” she told ThinkProgress. “We’re already at a poverty wage. Now if you have no kind of income [on forced unpaid leave], you’re not going to be any healthier.”

The two women have now withdrawn that proposal. The March 5 letter has Murray “really happy,” she told ThinkProgress. “Walmart would have never made that move, never have changed that policy, until we forced their hand with the proposal.”

But the fight, unfortunately, isn’t over. While a worker like Tiffany who experiences a physical disability stemming from her pregnancy should now be able to get light duty assignments like store greeter or cashier, a healthy pregnancy may not qualify. In fact Kathy (a pseudonym), the worker at the center of a complaint to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) from NWLC and A Better Balance, might not get relief. During her pregnancy, her doctor advised her not to lift more than 25 pounds and to stay off of ladders, and she was able to do so for months. But when she was seven months pregnant, Walmart forced her onto unpaid leave, despite her doctor’s note laying out her restrictions. “Three months before my baby was born, Walmart forced me out the door,” she says in a press release from NWLC. “I was doing my job as a sales associate just as I had been for months, but suddenly I lost the paycheck that my family was counting on—simply because I was pregnant.”

Whether Kathy would be protected by the new policy “is totally unclear,” said Liz Watson, senior counsel and director of workplace justice for women at NWLC. “It would depend on how Walmart defines temporary disability in its policy.” Given that Walmart doesn’t have a good track record already with giving pregnant women accommodations, the lack of clarity in its wording is disconcerting, she said. And beyond that, the other cause for concern is that courts and the EEOC itself have ruled that a healthy pregnancy can’t qualify as a disability. “We remain very concerned about the revised policy that Walmart has written,” Watson said, adding that the charge it brought is still pending.

In a press release, NWLC and A Better Balance note that an investigation they conducted last year found that the company’s policy toward pregnant workers showed “a pattern of unlawful discrimination against pregnant women.” These violated both the Americans with Disabilities Act, which requires reasonable accommodations for pregnancy-related disabilities, and the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, which requires that all pregnant workers get the same accommodations given to workers with disabilities. The new policy should put the company in compliance with the former but not necessarily the latter.

Walmart says that its policy will apply to all healthy workers, but Watson notes, “If that’s the point, then they should just say so.” If women will now have to prove that they have a temporary disability in order to get an accommodation, it would be “heading us down a very complicated and convoluted path.” A woman might be in the situation of having to develop a urinary tract infection from lack of hydration when she can’t carry a water bottle before she can get the accommodation, for example. Walmart did not return a request for comment.

For her part, Murray isn’t done fighting either. “We’re going to continue to hold Walmart accountable,” she said. She shares Watson’s concerns about healthy pregnant women. She related a recent situation that worked out in the end: A young pregnant woman was put on maintenance, which means handling harsh chemicals, but she became sick from them and even passed out. Murray and Beroid called their manager and, since the woman already had training as a cashier, asked that she be transferred to that duty. “The manager said, ‘Let’s do it,’” Murray related. She’s now working as a cashier and “they haven’t forced her to go back.” But she worried that healthy pregnant workers will have to get sick or hurt before they get accommodations. “Some of the healthy pregnant women won’t remain healthy if they have to pull a pallet jack or climb a ladder or deal with chemicals,” she warned.

“If we don’t challenge Walmart,” she noted, “they won’t do anything about it. It’s up to us to keep an eye out and keep mindful about what is going on in our company. That’s the only way it’ll change.”

Another way to change this situation could also be to enact laws that specifically mandate that all pregnant women be given reasonable accommodations to stay at work. Some states have passed laws that have been dubbed Pregnant Workers Fairness Acts, such as Alaska, California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Louisiana, New Jersey, Texas, and West Virginia. While Watson argues that what Walmart is doing is already illegal under current law, she added that these other laws “make it unmistakably clear to employers what their obligations are,” which might prevent problems in the first place. But while a law at the federal level has been introduced multiple times, it has yet to advance, leaving most pregnant workers uncovered.

The problem goes far beyond Walmart. Based on estimates from a survey, it’s likely that more than a quarter million pregnant workers are denied their requests for an accommodation each year. Women say they have lost their babies or experienced acute financial hardship because of it. And the problem is only getting worse, as pregnancy discrimination charges with the EEOC like Kelly’s rose 65 percent between 1992 and 2007.

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