United Bible Fellowship Ministries, Inc., which provides housing and care to people with disabilities, will have to pay a former employee $75,000 for firing her after she became pregnant to settle a lawsuit brought by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
The organization has had a “no pregnancy in the workplace” policy in place that meant it fired anyone who became pregnant and refused to hire anyone applying for a position while pregnant. It admitted that the former employee, Sharmira Johnson, performed her job as a resource technician providing care to residents well and didn’t have any medical restrictions that would keep her from carrying out her duties. Yet it fired her, arguing it was justifiable in order to ensure her safety, that of her unborn baby, and the safety of its clients.
That argument didn’t hold up in court. U.S. District Court Judge Vanessa D. Gilmore found that United Bible “recklessly” failed to comply with Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits employment discrimination based on sex, race, religion, and other characteristics, by having the anti-pregnancy policy. The organization also has a contract with the Texas government, which requires it to comply with anti-discrimination laws. The court held that it failed to show that all pregnant women are unable to perform their duties safely. The judge awarded Johnson about $25,000 in back pay and overtime plus interest, as well as $50,000 in damages for emotional and mental suffering.
“This decision is another in a long line of federal court cases rejecting employer policies based on assumptions and stereotypes about a pregnant woman’s inability to work,” said Claudia Molina-Antanaitis, the EEOC attorney in charge of the case, in a press release. “Employers cannot impose paternalistic and unsubstantiated views on the alleged dangers of pregnancy to exclude all pregnant women from employment.” United Bible didn’t respond to a request for comment.
While federal law should already prevent workplace discrimination against pregnant women, it is still pretty widespread.
Some of it is a good deal more subtle than United Bible’s blatant “no pregnancy” policy. An estimated quarter million pregnant women are told each year that they can’t have small changes like switching to lighter duty or getting a stool to sit on so that they can keep working at their jobs safely. That means many are either forced onto unpaid leave before their babies are born or simply fired. Others stick it out and risk health complications, including miscarriage.
But many women have claimed that they were fired almost immediately after telling their employers that they had become pregnant. These companies don’t have as explicit policies as United Bible’s, but the effect is the same. A survey of decades of cases like these shows that employers frequently rely on stereotypes about pregnant women, like the idea that they simply won’t return to work after they have their babies, and vilify them to justify firing them.
Yet it has become more and more common for pregnant women to remain in the workplace before and after they give birth. The share of first-time mothers who work during their pregnancies has increased from less than half in 1960 to two-thirds today, while 80 percent work into the last month. On the other end, nearly 60 percent of women are back at work six months after they give birth and more than 70 percent of women with young children are in the workforce.
Given the discrimination pregnant employees still face at work, some states have gone above federal law to enact stricter requirements. Forty-five have protections against pregnancy discrimination, while 14 and Washington, D.C. have laws requiring employers to give pregnant employees reasonable accommodations so they can keep working. A federal law has been introduced multiple times to require all of the country’s employers to give pregnant workers those accommodations, but it hasn’t gained traction.