Adding Insult to Pregnancy

The Pregnancy Discrimination Act has been in effect since 1978, but discrimination against pregnant women in the workplace is still all too common.  Statistics from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal agency that hears complaints of employment discrimination, show that pregnancy discrimination claims are on the rise.  Almost 6,000 complaints of pregnancy discrimination were filed with the EEOC in 2011, up about 25% from five years before. 

The EEOC has taken notice and recently announced that it is targeting pregnancy discrimination in the workplace as one of its top priorities.  Shortly after its announcement, the EEOC turned its words into action, filing four new pregnancy discrimination-related lawsuits and settling a fifth.

Enforcing the current pregnancy discrimination law, and educating both employers and employees about their rights and responsibilities under the Act, is certainly an important step.  But it is not enough.  The existing pregnancy discrimination law, as it has been construed by the courts, simply does not provide enough protection for many pregnant workers.  Although the law prohibits pregnancy discrimination, courts have held that it does not require employers to make reasonable accommodations for pregnant women in the workplace.  Here are just a few examples of cases in which employers refused to accommodate pregnant women.  Shockingly, in all of these cases, the courts found that under existing law, pregnancy discrimination had not occurred:

  • Heather, a Wal-Mart associate, suffered urinary infections while pregnant and began carrying a water bottle at work on her doctor’s recommendation.  Wal-Mart refused to allow it, based on a rule that only cashiers could carry water bottles, and terminated her.
  • Victoria, a nursing home director, was instructed by her doctor to avoid heavy lifting after a near-miscarriage.  The employer refused to accommodate her, even though she only spent a few minutes a day doing these activities, and fired her.
  • Amber, a female truck driver, asked for assistance with heavy lifting late in her pregnancy.  Although the employer had allowed this for other drivers with injuries, it refused and forced her to take unpaid leave, then terminated her a week after her baby was born.

Fortunately, public pressure is mounting to fix the gaps in the current law.  Recently, a bill was introduced in the Maine legislature, LD 830, to further protect working women from pregnancy discrimination.  This bill would make it clear that employers are required to provide reasonable accommodations to pregnant women (such as allowing her to carry a water bottle at work, or providing her with assistance for heavy-lifting), in the same way that employers are required to grant reasonable accommodations to workers with disabilities.  On the federal level, a similar bill has been introduced in Congress, the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, although Republicans in Congress have come out in opposition to the proposal.

These laws are much-needed reforms if we want to ensure that what happened to Heather, Victoria, Amber, and countless other women like them does not happen again.  

If you believe your rights have been violated, contact us.

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