Walmart Promised To Stop Punishing Pregnant Workers. So Why Did These Pregnant Workers Get Fired?

A sign from a Black Friday protest in 2014 CREDIT: AP PHOTO/J PAT CARTER
A sign from a Black Friday protest in 2014 CREDIT: AP PHOTO/J PAT CARTER

Arleja Stevens considers herself a hard worker. After she got a job as a customer service manager at a Walmart in Washington, DC right before last year’s holiday rush, she says she worked longer than was required in every single shift except one, when a computer glitch forced her and her coworkers to go home.

That didn’t change after she found out she was pregnant in January. She didn’t tell her manager right away; she was worried about how it would be received, particularly at a company that has become somewhat known for taking action against pregnant employees over the years. “I didn’t tell anyone at the store because basically the culture I have seen there, they were not too forgiving of people if they had certain debilitations or injuries,” she said.

But she did plan to keep working just as hard through her pregnancy. “Most days I came to work and dealt with my morning sickness in the bathroom and continued working,” she said. “I was just trying to show them that even though I’m pregnant, it’s not going to stop me, I’m not going to work less, I’m still able to do my job, and do it good, and work hard.”

“I was going to keep working up until my water broke, I went into labor on the floor, I wasn’t going to take maternity leave or anything,” she added.

Then the complications started. “I was bleeding and I was in a lot of pain,” she said. Her doctor told her to go to the hospital, fearing it was an ectopic pregnancy. But she didn’t go right away out of the worry that she couldn’t get her shift covered and not wanting to abandon her coworkers.

On the 11th of January, after getting her shifts covered, she finally went to the emergency room, where she was told it wasn’t an ectopic pregnancy but was still given pain medication and told to rest for a day. She tried to get the next day’s shift covered as well, but the assistant manager she talked to apparently never got authorization for the shift change.

When she returned to work, she was given a verbal warning for her absences, at this point adding up to three days on top of two she had to take in December to care for one of her sons who was sick. She was ready, giving her manager a doctor’s note to show why the two days she took off to go to the hospital were excused due to a complicated pregnancy. “I was thinking that if those two days were excused I would still be in the safe area as far as absences,” she said. But she was told the note didn’t matter; no absences could be excused because she was still in a probationary period.

I was going to keep working up until my water broke

Then on March 5, days before she said the store had promised to wipe all employees’ absences records clean, she was told she was fired for missing too many shifts. “I was really surprised when I was terminated,” she said.

Her treatment is especially surprising in light of recent policy changes Walmart has made for pregnant workers. After a number of lawsuits accused Walmart of illegally discriminating against pregnant employees, the company changed its policy in 2014 to allow a “reasonable accommodation” for “a temporary disability caused by pregnancy.” The company called its new policy “best in class.”

But one lawsuit is still pending that argues employees with healthy pregnancies continue to be denied the accommodations they should get under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act. And on Wednesday morning, former Walmart workers, including Stevens, along with attorneys and worker organizations will hold a press conference accusing the retail giant of continuing to discriminate against pregnant employees.

In response to a request for comment on the accusations, a Walmart spokesperson emailed, “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. Our policy now exceeds federal and most state laws to provide our pregnant associates with the same accommodations that are offered to associates with disabilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act, even though that is not required.”

That’s not what the lawyers say, though. “Walmart claims to have a gold star policy,” said Dina Bakst, co-president at legal advocacy group A Better Balance. “But we know it’s far from the reality.” Her group argues that managers haven’t been adequately trained, so they remain unaware of their obligations under federal law. They also argue that Walmart workers aren’t informed of their rights under the same laws.

Walmart claims to have a gold star policy…but we know it’s far from the reality

And it’s not just women like Stevens who say they’ve run into these problems. “These are not isolated incidents,” Bakst said. “We’re hearing these stories popping up around the country.” Her organization continues to field calls from women who say they’ve experienced pregnancy discrimination at Walmart.

That’s why A Better Balance is continuing its efforts against the company. It’s demanding that Walmart further update its policy to make accommodations available to all pregnant workers who need them. It also calls on the company to train managers and ensure enforcement. “Our legal efforts will not stop until pregnancy discrimination is eradicated at Walmart,” she said. Worker groups such as Making Change at Walmart, Jobs With Justice, and unions also pledge to keep organizing around the issue. So far the company hasn’t expressed any willingness to make changes.

Stevens is speaking out in the hopes of casting light on what happened to her. “I felt that I was biased against, discriminated against,” she said. After she was fired, she said coworkers couldn’t believe she was let go for absences and shared stories of racking up far more days away than she did without suffering the same consequences. “They were just aghast,” she said.

Things have been tough for her since she was terminated. She was the main earner for her three children and her partner, but hasn’t been able to find work since then. For now, they have to rely on her partner’s income from two part-time jobs to get by. “It’s a little bit of a struggle,” she said.