Candis Riggins has a new baby. But, since she got fired from Walmart, she no longer has her job or her house.
In March, Walmart quietly changed its policy for accommodating pregnant workers so that they were covered by its existing disability protections. The change came after the Respect the Bump campaign from Cynthia Murray and Mary Watkines, who withdrew a shareholder proposal they had submitted after the policy change. In its new policy, the company said pregnant workers may be eligible for a “reasonable accommodation” if they have “a temporary disability caused by pregnancy.” But at the time, advocates warned that the language was vague enough that some pregnant workers could still be denied a simple accommodation at Walmart. A healthy pregnancy that requires a change in duties, such as less heavy lifting, may not be covered by the change, for instance.
Riggins proves that they were likely right. She started working at a store in Laurel, Maryland in June of 2013 and got pregnant around September. “It was okay for the first couple months,” she told ThinkProgress. But around February, “I started feeling sick.” She worked in maintenance, using harsh cleaning chemicals that made her feel unwell and lugging around them and a mop and bucket around the store. “Lifting all of those things while I’m hugely pregnant, it’s just impossible,” she said.
And the effects of the chemicals landed her in the hospital “multiple times,” she said. It got so bad one morning that she passed out at the bus stop on the way to work and was taken to the hospital. “They asked me what kind of work I do,” she said. “They said this is basically the cause, taking in all of these chemicals and fumes you shouldn’t be taking in, basically breaking me down while I was pregnant.”
When she first started to feel sick, she went to her manager and asked for an accommodation — to work as a cashier temporarily while she was pregnant and then go back to her maintenance job afterward. She was told to use a computer in the back room to change her “career preference” from her current job to the lighter cashier work. “I actually did my career preference three times,” she said. “Nothing happened, no changes and no accommodations, and I was still cleaning back rooms and basically still getting sicker and sicker.”
And she suspects that wasn’t because of a lack of open slots. “After me asking if I could work as a cashier and being told no, they would hire more cashiers to come in,” she said. “I was basically just looked over.”
Despite the sickness, she kept going to work as much as she could. “I was really afraid of losing my job,” she said. “I would go in and try to push through it and put on this face like I’m okay.” She didn’t even tell her manager about the pregnancy for a while because she was afraid she would end up fired. “I’ve seen plenty of other women there that were pregnant, but after a couple of months I didn’t see them again… They were basically terminated because of pregnancy,” she said.
But some days she couldn’t do it. “I called out a couple of times,” she said. “I just couldn’t go in and put myself through that.” She says every time she stayed home she was told by a manager that it was okay to do so. “Every time I would call out I would speak to the manager, they would inform me that it was okay, they understood I was pregnant,” she said.
Yet she was fired in May and was told it was because of her absences. “I wasn’t aware it was an issue,” she said.
That’s left her family, which includes her newborn as well as a four-year-old daughter and a two-year-old son, in a very difficult financial situation. They were evicted from their apartment last Wednesday and are now living with a relative. “With the new baby I couldn’t find a new job right away,” she said. Walmart “was my income.”
“It’s really hard right now,” she said.
On Thursday, she and A Better Balance, the National Women’s Law Center, and Mehri & Skalet, PLLC sent a letter to Walmart alleging that its policy is still out of compliance with the Pregnancy Discrimination Act and requesting that it reinstate Riggins after she is recovered from childbirth, compensate her for the lost wages after she was fired, and “clarify and effectively implement its policies and procedures with respect to pregnant workers to ensure fair treatment and compliance with the law.”
Walmart did not immediately return a request for comment.
Walmart may not just be on notice from Riggins and the legal groups. Last month, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued new employer guidance for pregnancy discrimination. It confirmed that people who are pregnant or recently gave birth have to be treated the same as their coworkers “in their ability or inability to work.” Given that Walmart currently gives employees with disabilities accommodations unless they pose an undue hardship, it may be afoul of that law if it’s denying the same changes to pregnant employees.
“I want a policy for all women, not just for me,” Riggins said. “We work really hard at Walmart… I just want it to be better.”