Pregnant Workers Deserve Better Than Impossible and Unfair Choices

New York Times report last week centering on a warehouse in Memphis revealed that Verizon subcontractors New Breed Logistics, later XPO Logistics, made pregnant women work in 100-degree heat, lifting boxes weighting up to 45 pounds. Despite doctors’ notes and multiple requests, supervisors denied pregnant women’s request to work with lighter boxes and instead required women to work long shifts on their feet—up to 14 hours—and work overtime.

Multiple women fainted, bled and ultimately miscarried. 

In 2014, advocates and members of Congress rallied outside the Supreme Court as the Justices decided a pregnancy discrimination case. (Jeffrey Martin / National Women’s Law Center

Erica Hayes miscarried a second trimester pregnancy in January of 2014. Ceeadria Walker miscarried in August the same year. Another woman, Tasha Murrell, alleges that when she was pregnant, she requested to leave work early one day, after lifting had become painful. Her supervisor told her to get an abortion, and she miscarried the next day. Chasisty Bee, who told her story in Ms., also lost a pregnancy after her employer rejected her doctor’s orders for light duty. When she became pregnant again, she found another job—because she “couldn’t bear to lose another child.”

Across the country, in Atascadero, California, Reyna Garcia miscarried after her boss refused to give her permission to leave early and instead required her to work overtime. When she returned to work after recovering from the miscarriage, her boss demoted her.

Andrea Flynn, a Roosevelt Institute Fellow, attributes these stories to “the collision of three dangerous trends: the declining power of workers, who have experienced rapid erosion in unionization in recent decades, along with stagnant wages and deteriorating benefits, safety and job quality; the outsized employer power in the labor market, which enables employers to unilaterally set the terms of employment and leaves workers with fewer and fewer job options and bargaining power to set the terms of their workplaces; [and] a cultural disdain for women—a disdain that has fueled attacks on their health care, their safety and their economy security.”

In most nations around the world, pregnant workers have a legal right to pregnancy accommodations—but not in the United States. Federal law, in fact, allows employers to deny pregnant workers basic accommodations, leading to a terrible choice between their jobs and their pregnancies.

The federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 prohibits employment discrimination based on pregnancy, but does not require employers to accommodate pregnancy. Federal law allows employers to require pregnant workers to engage in dangerous tasks, even when the employer knows this might cause a miscarriage of the pregnancy. All the law requires is non-discrimination—which means that if an employer does not accommodate other disabilities, then they don’t have to accommodate pregnancy. While the Americans With Disabilities Act requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities, the law does not apply to normal pregnancy.

The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, which has been introduced consistently over the years in Congress, would require employers to make reasonable accommodations for pregnant workers—but while this issue has generally had bipartisan support, Republicans have blocked its advancement.

“It is alarming that women in this country, the richest country in the world, must put their pregnancies at risk in order to keep doing their jobs,” says Senator Kirsten Gillibrand. “We have to raise our standards so they’ll never again have to make such a choice.”

Feminists have turned to the states in the fight to raise those standards. While the U.S. has no federal law requiring pregnancy accommodation, about half of states and some cities have passed laws directing employers to provide reasonable accommodations of pregnancy—like a stool to sit on during long shifts, access to water or less strenuous or hazardous tasks if available—but many pregnant workers across the country are not covered by these laws, such as those living in Tennessee, where the XPO Logistics warehouse is located. (And even if they are covered, women have to fight to get these laws enforced). According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the number of pregnancy discrimination complaints they are now receiving is at an all-time high. 

“Too many employers of low-income women put pregnant women at risk by refusing to accommodate their pregnancies,” declares Dina Bakst, Co-Founder and Co-President of A Better Balance, which advocates for expanding pregnancy accommodation laws to more states and enforcing existing laws. “No pregnant worker should have to choose between her paycheck and a healthy pregnancy.” A Better Balance and the National Women’s Law Center recently filed a nationwide class-action lawsuit against Walmart for failing to accommodate pregnant workers. 

Pregnant workers are speaking out and rising up in their own #MeToo movement. Feminists in every industry must rise up with them and demand that Congress pass the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act so that all pregnant workers have the right to accommodations, and so no employer can force pregnant employees to choose between their livelihood and the very lives of their children—a choice no one should ever have to make.

Carrie Baker is Professor and Director of the Program for the Study of Women and Gender at Smith College.

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