Low-Wage Industries Are Some Of The Biggest Offenders In Pregnancy Discrimination


While the health care and social assistance industry leads all others in the number of complaints workers have made alleging discrimination on the basis of their pregnancy or other maternity-related issues, low-wage industries together account for a large share of the complaints, according to data from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) provided to ThinkProgress.

In 2013, the health care industry was hit with 383 complaints. The next biggest culprit was retail, which had 224 complaints. Following after that was accommodation and food services, with 169. Administrative and support and waste management with 116, and manufacturing, with 112, also broke the 100 mark.

The numbers indicate that women in low-wage jobs may be particularly vulnerable to discrimination, given that retail, food services, and administration add up to 509 of the 1,559 complaints, or about a third, that were categorized by industry. Median pay is $10.29 an hour in retail, $8.84 in food services, and $15.39 in administrative support.

The data is an undercount, given that about 2,000 claims didn’t indicate what industry they came from.

Relying on the same data, Brigid Schulte of the Washington Post broke the figures down:

CREDIT: Washington Post, source EEOC
CREDIT: Washington Post, source EEOC

Given that these jobs also tend to be physically demanding yet inflexible about workplace policies, this data is troubling. Many rank in the top fifth of jobs that frequently require standing, running, lifting or carrying heavy objects, or being exposed to chemicals. Meanwhile, more than 40 percent of low-wage workers say they aren’t allowed to decide when to take breaks or have control over the scheduling of their hours.

And according to the National Women’s Law Center, many of these jobs are places where women have sought and been denied accommodations to stay on the job during their pregnancies, such as retail salespeople, food service workers, cashiers, cleaners, and others. Plenty of these stories have emerged from these industries, such as a woman who says she was recently fired from Walmart after being denied an accommodation for her pregnancy or the woman who says she was put on unpaid leave from Pier 1 during her pregnancy even though she wanted to keep working.

The EEOC data also indicate the sharp rise in pregnancy discrimination complaints. A total of 3,560 were filed in 2013, and while that was down from the peak of 4,034 in 2010, it’s a jump from 2,705 in 2004. An estimated quarter million women are denied their requests for an accommodation to keep working through their pregnancies every year, and court cases show that employers often vilify pregnant workers and rely on stereotypes to justify firing them.

Perhaps complaints will decline now that the EEOC has issued new guidance, the first comprehensive update since 1983, making it clear that companies can’t discriminate against pregnant workers, including by denying them changes they need to stay on the job that would be offered to other workers for disabilities. It also makes it clear that pregnant workers can’t be fired or rejected for a position because of their pregnancies. But given the prevalence of these complaints despite many of them running afoul of current discrimination laws, the problem is likely to continue.

One potential solution that may cut down on these cases would be to enact the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, which would make it clear that employers need to offer pregnant workers reasonable accommodations unless they would pose undue hardship. That bill has been introduced multiple times in Congress but hasn’t gone anywhere, although states have passed their own versions.