The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act is expected to be re-introduced in the Senate and House today, a bill that would require employers to “make reasonable accommodations to employees stemming from pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions, unless the accommodation would impose an undue hardship on the employer,” according to the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC). It is sponsored by Sens. Robert Casey (D-PA) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) and Reps. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), Carolyn Maloney (D-NY), Jackie Speier (D-CA), Susan Davis (D-CA), and Marcia Fudge (D-OH).
While it may sound outrageous, women can be fired today for being or becoming pregnant. Despite the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 barring discrimination based on “the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions,” pregnant workers can be forced out of their jobs or denied accommodations that would allow them to keep working. Some of these might include modifying a policy prohibiting food and drink on the job, providing a stool, assigning heavy lifting duties to other workers, or giving a light-duty position to a pregnant employee.
Stories from around the country illustrate how employers fire or force pregnant women out who need accommodations:
Laura works as a program counselor at a facility for people with developmental disabilities. When she was pregnant, her doctor recommended that she not bend or twist when securing wheelchairs to a bus. She asked her supervisor to allow her to make this minor adjustment to her job duties. Her supervisor responded by forcing Laura on to unpaid leave for the rest of her pregnancy, even though she was not disabled and could do her job with this minor accommodation. Her employer also threatened to fire her if she didn’t return to work in four months. Maria,* a security worker in California, requested a stool to sit on and more frequent assignment rotation when she discovered she was pregnant. Her employer initially refused to accommodate her pregnancy limitations and placed her on involuntary early leave. (*Name changed to protect privacy.) Jane Doe worked at a casual eatery in Washington, D.C., preparing food and working “on the line” serving customers. After Jane became pregnant, she needed more frequent bathroom breaks and to be allowed to drink water and eat on her scheduled breaks. Her supervisor yelled at her publicly when she returned from the bathroom, ordering her – but no one else – to notify all of the other employees and to get his consent before using the bathroom… Her supervisor also denied her access to water during her four-hour shifts. When Jane asked for advance permission to leave early from a shift to attend a prenatal medical appointment, she got no response from her supervisor, despite asking him repeatedly for an answer. The day of the appointment her supervisor told her she could not leave and threatened to fire if she did… She kept the appointment, and when she returned to work, he immediately fired her. Diana Teigland has been a letter carrier for the United States Postal Service for the past 9 years in Minnesota, but this past summer her doctor put her on a heat restriction—limiting her time outside on extremely hot days—because of her pregnancy. Unfortunately, this past summer had a great number of very hot days. Even though her employer provides indoor work for work-related conditions, they will not provide inside duties for her.
The problem is widespread: 3,745 pregnancy discrimination charges were filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission last year. Complaints with the agency rose 65 percent between 1992 and 2007.
But many women work while pregnant: 62 percent of the women who gave birth in a one-year period worked while they were pregnant. If a woman is forced out of her job or fired, she loses income and will also likely struggle to re-enter the job market, particularly because new mothers often face discrimination. The stress of job loss is also associated with an increased risk of premature birth and/or low birth weight.