Kimberly Erin Caselman, a 31-year-old who has worked at Pier 1 for a little over two years, was given just eight weeks of light duty assignments as requested by her doctor before she says she was forced onto unpaid leave, despite the fact that she wanted to keep working.
After she got pregnant in September, she told ThinkProgress, the company asked her to get a doctor’s note outlining any restrictions, which she did. “I had some very mild restrictions,” she said, “no lifting more than 15 pounds and no climbing ladders.” Shortly after she handed in her note, she got a letter from Pier 1’s human resources department saying that she would be given the eight weeks of light duty but that it wouldn’t extend beyond that. She contacted the department and scoured the employee handbook, but Caselman realized that this was the company-wide policy. After that short stint, the company put her on unpaid leave.
The hiatus is putting a financial strain on her family while likely making her future more difficult. “Any additional income besides my husband’s, who is the primary breadwinner of the family, is very beneficial, especially now with the new addition,” she said. And because she’s on unpaid leave now while still pregnant, she’s eating into the leave owed her after the birth of her baby. “I am very worried, because next month I will have exhausted my four-month pregnancy leave,” she said. “I’m not sure how much longer I have with the company after that is gone.”
“My intent was to work until I was unable due to the pregnancy, but I was forced out months before I needed to be,” she added.
So on Wednesday, she and the Legal Aid Society Employment Law Center filed a class action suit against the company, alleging that it is violating California labor law. Sharon Terman, Caselman’s lawyer, told ThinkProgress, “California law is actually quite clear and strong when it comes to protections for pregnant women.” The state’s Fair Employment and Housing Act, which was expanded to have a pregnancy provision in 1999, requires that employers give pregnant workers reasonable accommodations so they may keep working while pregnant and bans them from putting those workers on involuntary leave. While Pier 1 does seem to have a policy that gives disabled workers with more severe restrictions more long term accomodations, “She’s not disabled,” Terman pointed out. “She’s perfectly fit to do her job.”
A Pier 1 spokesperson declined to comment, noting, “As a company policy, Pier 1 Imports does not comment on specific legal matters.”
Given that the company’s written policy on pregnancy restrictions applies universally, they believe that “a significant number of pregnant workers may have been affected” and are looking for others to join the class action suit.
“My ideal outcome would be for Pier 1’s policy to change so that pregnant women can stay employed,” Caselman said. “My goal is definitely to get back to work and start bringing in a source of income again.”
Caselman’s case illustrates a problem that faces many pregnant workers. Nearly two-thirds of first-time mothers work while pregnant, with more than 80 percent working into their last month. They may be fit to work with some restrictions to keep their pregnancies healthy, but companies still routinely deny them the accommodations they need. The majority need slight tweaks like more frequent breaks or taking on less strenuous tasks, but an estimated quarter million women are denied these requests each year.
Caselman is lucky in that she resides in a state with strong protections. In the rest of the country, pregnant workers are protected by the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, but that doesn’t have as clear a mandate for how companies must accommodate them. To change this situation, states have been passing bills they call Pregnant Workers Fairness Acts, which Terman pointed out are modeled after California’s law. Alaska, California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Louisiana, New Jersey, Texas, and West Virginia have passed these laws, as has New York City. But a federal version has been repeatedly introduced, only to go no where.