After Benet Holmes, a Walmart worker in Chicago, became pregnant, she asked her manager to switch her to light duty work that would be easier on her pregnancy. But while he gave her the go ahead, other store managers “had a problem with it,” she told ThinkProgress. So she was put back on regular duty where she had to climb ladders, carry boxes, and stock heavy items in the grocery section.
She eventually miscarried. When asked if she thought that the simple change to light duty would have meant a healthy pregnancy, she answered, “Yes. Definitely.”
She is just one of the women in the state of Illinois who will no longer have to choose between having a healthy pregnancy or keeping their jobs. On Thursday, a bill to protect pregnant workers unanimously passed both houses of the state legislature. Gov. Pat Quinn has promised to sign what he called an “important” bill.
According to Women Employed, which has worked to pass the bill, it would require employers to make “reasonable accommodations” for pregnant workers or other conditions related to pregnancy and childbirth unless it would impose undue hardship. Those accommodations are often simple, such as Holmes’s request to switch to light duty, more frequent bathroom or hydration breaks, or getting a stool to sit on. It’s modeled after the Americans with Disabilities Act and would give pregnant workers the same treatment as other disabled workers.
While the Pregnancy Discrimination Act bars employers from discriminating against their workers on the basis of pregnancy and childbirth, pregnant workers are still frequently forced to work in unhealthy conditions or to leave their jobs altogether when they need a small change to stay. Nearly two-thirds of women report working during their pregnancies, and the vast majority of those needed some small change to remain on the job. Yet more than a quarter million women are denied those requests each year and more than 40 percent of women who had recently given birth didn’t even bring up their needs for an accommodation.
This has led to both physical harm like Holmes’s experience and financial hardship. A woman working in a California grocery chain has sued for the death of her baby after her employer failed to accommodate her needs, and other women have reported miscarriages in the face of such inflexibility. Another worker at a retail store was forced onto unpaid leave after her employer refused to extend her light duty assignments as requested by her doctor, putting a financial strain on her family. She is also suing her employer, and pregnancy discrimination charges have been rising overall, increasing by 65 percent in less than ten years.
States have taken action similar to Illinois, such as Alaska, California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Louisiana, New Jersey, and Texas. But a federal measure that would protect all of the country’s pregnant workers hasn’t gone anywhere. The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act was introduced in May of last year but hasn’t gained traction.