Workers say Walmart is still punishing pregnant employees

Employees say they’ve been fired or forced onto unpaid leave instead of the company helping them stay on the job.

CREDIT: Gunnar Rathbun/AP Images
CREDIT: Gunnar Rathbun/AP Images

Otisha Woolbright says that Walmart gave her two choices in 2013 when she handed over a doctor’s note saying she couldn’t safely lift heavy objects at work because of her pregnancy: keep doing the job as before, including lifting large boxes, or walk out the door. When she asked whether she could transfer to a department with less physically demanding duties, she was allegedly told she hadn’t worked there long enough.

“That’s like saying, ‘I want you to lose your baby, I don’t care about your baby, I want you to work,’” she said. “That’s how they made me feel.”

She couldn’t afford to lose her job. She had only just moved into her own apartment and started to be able to pay her bills. So she kept working at the Walmart in Jacksonville, Florida and lifting whatever she was asked to.

It took just two weeks for her to injure herself picking up a box of chicken that weighed around 50 pounds. “I still deal with sciatica to this day from injuring myself at Walmart,” she said.

Then one day she requested information on taking a leave of absence, even though she knew she wouldn’t qualify for unpaid Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) time off because she hadn’t worked there long enough, thinking ahead to what she would do after her baby was born. Her managers called her into the office the same day and told her that the company no longer needed her services, she said. “They made me feel like me requesting for my FMLA and being pregnant was the issue,” she said.

Her firing abruptly ended what she had hoped would be a blossoming career with the company. She had not only planned to work throughout her pregnancy, but to get trained in other departments. “I wanted to know everything,” she said. She had planned to work her way up the company ranks and even work internationally. “I had dreams,” she said. “I had dreams at Walmart.” Those dreams are now long gone.

“The only thing I wanted to do was have a healthy life, a healthy baby,” she said. “I wasn’t a lazy worker… but my being pregnant seemed like it was a problem for them.”

According to a new class action lawsuit that Woolbright is a part of, it’s been a problem for a lot of other women, too. Along with advocacy organizations A Better Balance and the National Women’s Law Center, as well as the law firms Mehri & Skalet and Sedey Harper & Westhoff, Woolbright and fellow former Walmart employee Talisa Borders have accused the company of discriminating against thousands of pregnant women across the country by failing to accommodate their needs during pregnancy. “It’s really seeking justice for these individuals who suffered incredibly,” said Elizabeth Gedmark, senior staff attorney at A Better Balance.

In response to a request for comment, a Walmart spokesperson said, “Our policies have always fully met or exceeded both state and federal law and this includes the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Pregnancy Discrimination Act. We’ve also had a strong anti-discrimination policy, which provides more protection than required by the law. That policy has long listed pregnancy as a protected status. We deny the claims of Ms. Borders and Ms. Woolbright and plan to defend the company.”

The class action lawsuit stems from previous complaints both women lodged with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. “That’s what you do if you’re not able to resolve something at the EEOC level,” Gedmark said of the suit. “It’s really a substantial problem and it plays such a large role in their lives that we couldn’t just let it lie.” They expect more women to join.

Their lawsuit is specific to the period of time when both women were working at Walmart, which is before the company tweaked its disability policy. Before the change, the company explicitly excluded pregnancy from any on-the-job accommodations while offering them to disabled workers or those hurt at work.

When Borders became pregnant, she kept doing her job in the pharmacy department of an O’Fallon, Illinois Walmart as she had before. But then one day she climbed up on a ladder to get something and nearly fell off. When she started avoiding going up ladders for fear of hurting herself or her baby, she said her manager told her to get a doctor’s note — so her doctor wrote a note saying she shouldn’t go up and down ladders or lift more than 25 pounds until after she had given birth.

Rather than find a way to work with her, Borders said that when she handed the note to her manager she was told she had to take an unpaid leave of absence and that she could only get an accommodation if she actually got hurt at work.

The month away from work without pay was a difficult period. “I was crying straight for days,” she said. Her daughter had outgrown the previous year’s summer clothes, but she didn’t have money to buy her new ones, so a friend had to take her daughter shopping. She lost her car because she couldn’t pay the bill. Her credit score dropped as she borrowed to cover expenses. “I didn’t know how I was going to pay a bill,” she said. “I didn’t have no one, for real.”

Things didn’t get much better, though, when she got back to work: She said she was told that because she had been out for so long, her original position was no longer available. But, she pointed out, “It wasn’t my choice to be gone long.” She was told she had to take a lower-paid job. “I had already been out of work for a whole month with no money to pay anything, the bills was sky high.”

In 2014, Walmart’s policy changed so that workers may be eligible for an accommodation — avoiding heavy lifting, say, or getting more frequent bathroom breaks and chances to sit down — if they have “a temporary disability caused by pregnancy,” a change the company claimed at the time was “best in class.”

But the new lawsuit also pertains to pregnant employees who were allegedly fired or pushed onto unpaid leave after that change. It alleges that Walmart’s current policies still illegally discriminate against pregnant women, violating the Pregnancy Discrimination Act. “We still do believe that this is happening and their change in policy was not enough to fix the problem,” Gedmark said.

That’s what Brittani Russell of Porter, Texas says just happened to her. She was excited to start back at Walmart as a full-time employee last week. She’s five months pregnant and needed a job to pay her rent and bills. “It was starting to seem like things were going to be okay after Walmart hired me,” she said. The job was ideal, given that she had worked there before so she already knew its systems.

Things seemed to be going well: on her first Friday shift she says her manager told her she got a compliment from a customer, and he had no complaints for her over the weekend. But working the long hours she had been used to before was taking a toll on her this time around. Her feet were painfully swelling from so much time spent standing on them while pregnant. “Sunday, when I got home I could barely even walk through the door,” she said.

So when she went in on Monday she decided to tell the personnel office that she was pregnant and needed to reduce the hours she worked each shift to avoid the pain in her feet. She says the people she spoke to seemed happy to work with her and changed her schedule.

But just as she clocked out that day, her manager said she had to speak with her. That’s when she says she was told that customers had made complaints about her service on Saturday and that coworkers claimed she had been saying she hated Walmart. It was the first she had heard about any of it. “I know for sure that they’re making it up,” she said. She claims that she instead was telling coworkers how happy she was to be back at the company, and that she would never badmouth a new employer anyway.

She confronted them, she said, arguing that she was being fired because she was pregnant. “They denied it, but I’m not stupid,” she said. “Why wasn’t anything said or done until after I told them that I was pregnant?”

The company couldn’t immediately comment on what happened to Russell.

She walked out in tears. “I’m really irritated at Walmart,” she said. She’s now trying to find a new job. Her boyfriend is hopeful that he himself will soon get a job with Walmart, but they need two incomes to afford rent and pay their bills. She needs to buy new tires and windshield wipers for her car, and she’s let her car insurance lapse because she hasn’t been getting a steady paycheck.

The ramifications of Walmart’s actions linger long after the incidents themselves. Borders still hasn’t recovered financially four years later. “I’m still playing catch up,” she said.

Woolbright wasn’t able to find another job for another year after she was made to leave Walmart. “I was seven months pregnant and nobody would hire me,” she said. “I couldn’t get a job if my life depended on it.” To scrape by, she did whatever odd jobs she could, cleaning houses and walking dogs. She borrowed money from family and friends, some of whom she still hasn’t been able to pay back.

The ordeal sent her back into depression, something she’s still living with. “I’ve been dealing with it since they let me go,” she said. “I haven’t let this go, I couldn’t let this go. I would never forgive Walmart for doing this to me.”