Betzaida Cruz Cardona is 32-weeks pregnant, unemployed, and homeless. But just a few months ago, she had a job she was willing and able to do that paid her rent.
Cruz had been a cashier at a Henrietta, New York, Savers since April of 2014 when she got pregnant and visited the doctor frequently for complications. At one visit, her doctor gave her a note saying that she shouldn’t lift more than 25 pounds. But since her job simply required that work at a cash register, she didn’t expect it to interfere with her work.
A half an hour after she handed in that doctor’s note and told her manager she still wanted to keep working, she says she was fired without any explanation except that the corporate human resources department told her manager to do so and she should “stay home and take care of [her] pregnancy.” She wasn’t told it was to do with any disciplinary issues or the days off she had taken to visit the doctor, given that they were excused.
A spokeswoman for the company said its policy is not to comment on specific employment matters, but added, “we have not, do not, and will not tolerate discrimination of any type, including pregnancy discrimination, toward our valued employees.”
Cruz told ThinkProgress “everything basically went bad” after she was fired. “My family, we didn’t have enough money to pay everything. It was just arguments and fights [with her boyfriend] because I had lost my job. So I lost my apartment, I lost everything.”
She’s since has been moving “from house to house to house to house.” Moving around so much while pregnant is “extremely hard because it’s not comfortable,” she said. “It’s stressful, depressing.”
Cruz is now suing Savers with the help of lawyers from A Better Balance and Emery Celli Brinckerhoff & Abady LLP (ECBA). Her lawyers say the company violated the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA), which bans employment discrimination on the basis of pregnancy, given the timing of her termination and the comment that she should stay home, which is “evidence of discriminatory intent,” explained Dina Bakst of A Better Balance. It also violated the PDA by refusing to give her an accommodation so she could keep working, which her lawyers say was given to a different worker with carpal tunnel syndrome. But while the case is about accommodation, “it’s even more so a case of outright discrimination against pregnant people,” said Elizabeth Saylor of ECBA, given that she didn’t need to lift objects to continue doing her job.
Since she had a condition related to her pregnancy that limited her activity, her lawyers say she was also covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The lawyers are also charging the company with a pattern and practice of discrimination against pregnant women. While the company has an express policy against discriminating against workers with disabilities, “unfortunately they don’t have any policy that we’ve seen or anything in the employment manual relating to not discriminating against pregnant women and providing them with accommodations,” said Saylor.
In response to a request for information about the company’s policies, the Savers spokeswoman said, “Savers makes reasonable accommodations for team members when they have a disability that limits their ability to perform their job.” She said that the policy applies to all workers, including those who are pregnant. Bakst argued, “that’s not what the policy says, and that’s not how the policy was applied to Ms. Cruz.”
Cruz’s lawyers also point to the involvement of the corporate human resources department of a sign that Cruz’s firing wasn’t the work of a rogue manager. “One of our express goals is for Savers to adopt a new policy that clearly states it will not discriminate against pregnant employees,” Saylor added.
To add insult to injury, Cruz says that the company claimed she had voluntarily quit for medical reasons on her termination paperwork, which made it very difficult to get unemployment insurance. She filed for the benefits in early September but didn’t start receiving them until January. And while her boyfriend has helped her out financially, her family doesn’t have the resources to help.
“I tried to get a job, but since I’m pregnant it really has been hard,” she said. “I’m planning after I have [the baby] on starting to find a job, but first I have to find somebody that can have her while I’m working.”
Had Cruz lived in New York City, instead of further upstate, the whole incident might not have happened. New York City passed a Pregnant Workers Fairness Act in 2013, which requires employers to give pregnant workers reasonable accommodations, such as light duty, unless they can prove it would mean an undue burden. “It makes it crystal clear that employers have to affirmatively provide reasonable accommodations to workers with pregnancy-related needs,” Bakst explained. The rest of the state doesn’t have such a law, however; one has been passed in its senate but is still pending. “If there was an unmistakably clear law that informed employers of what their obligations are to accommodate workers, this may not have happened,” she added.
Other states have passed similar laws that cover all of their workers, and a federal bill that would apply to the entire country has been introduced multiple times in Congress. Yet it has failed to move forward.
In the meantime, Cruz’s experience is unfortunately extremely common. An estimated quarter million women are denied their requests for an accommodation for their pregnancy every year, and many more are afraid to even ask. But 80 percent of first-time mothers work into their last month of pregnancy. A number of other employers are facing lawsuits over pregnancy discrimination, from Walmart to Bloomberg TV.