Pregnancy shouldn’t mean the loss of a paycheck.

But too many women, especially women in low-wage jobs, have been fired or forced to take unpaid leave just when they need income the most – right before giving birth to a new child.

  • Peggy Young, a delivery truck driver, was forced to take unpaid leave after her employer refused her request for a “light-duty” assignment, even though her employer had given these assignments to other employees who were temporarily unable to perform their jobs.  Young’s doctor had advised her not to lift more than 20lbs while pregnant.  Instead of receiving a temporary accommodation, Young lost her income and her medical coverage for the duration of her pregnancy.
  • Hilda Guzzman, a store cashier, asked her employer if she could sit on a stool during the workday to avoid standing for the entirety of an 8- to 10-hour work shift.  According to Guzzman, her boss told her, “You can’t get special treatment since a man can’t get pregnant.” She later developed complications from having to stand for extended periods and was forced to take unpaid leave.
  • Heather Wiseman, a sales floor associate for a national retailer, was fired for carrying a water bottle at work.  Her doctor had advised her to stay hydrated to avoid specific complications she had experienced as a result of her pregnancy.  But Wiseman’s job prohibited water bottles at work.

Pregnancy discrimination in the workplace should be a thing of the past.

via Shutterstock
via Shutterstock

Thirty-five years ago, Congress passed the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA), prohibiting sex discrimination on the basis of pregnancy.  Employers cannot legally discriminate against pregnant women in hiring, firing, pay, job assignments, career development, or benefits. If a pregnant woman is temporarily unable to perform her job, the PDA requires employers to treat that woman as it treats any other employee who is temporarily unable to work, meaning that if these employees receive temporary accommodations, so must the pregnant woman.

The PDA was a landmark achievement for women.  It expanded economic opportunities which had been unjustly denied, helped women maintain job stability, protected women against lost wages and costs associated with job loss, and contributed to families’ overall financial well-being.

But, despite these benefits discrimination persists. Between 1992 and 2011, pregnancy discrimination complaints in the United States increased by 71 percent. In the period 2010-2012 alone, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) received 11,757 such complaints.

And courts are increasingly hostile to pregnancy discrimination claims.  Despite the clear intent of the PDA to treat pregnant workers like any other worker, some courts have held that a pregnant woman denied an accommodation cannot point to a temporarily disabled employee who was granted an accommodation in order to prove discrimination.  Instead, she must find a non-pregnant employee – with close to all of the same symptoms and who works in a similar job – that was treated better than her.  For many women, this is an impossible burden.

Pregnant workers – like all workers – need job security, and their families need support.

Women make up nearly half of the U.S. workforce and are the primary breadwinners in more than 40 percent of households with children under 18 years of age.  Three-quarters of women entering the workforce will become pregnant while employed, and more than 80 percent of women are now working into their last month of pregnancy.

 Most pregnant women will never need a workplace accommodation.  But for those that do, the law should strenuously protect them from job loss and the denial of pay and benefits.  Low-wage workers in particular need protection, as pregnancy and the birth of a new child – even without a loss in wages – may increase their risk of financial insecurity.

 The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (HR1975/S942), introduced by Congressman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) and Senators Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) and Robert Casey (D-PA), offers greater protection for these women and the thousands of others like Peggy Young, Hilda Guzzman, and Heather Wiseman.

The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act would clarify that pregnant women are guaranteed the same workplace protections that are in place for other workers temporarily unable to perform job duties without reasonable accommodations.  The Act would also prohibit an employer from forcing a pregnant worker to use unpaid leave if she is able to work with a reasonable accommodation.

Pregnancy doesn’t have to mean the loss of a paycheck, and pregnant women have the right to enjoy the protection of the law just like everyone else.  Some employers don’t seem to get it.  Neither do the courts.  Congress should correct these mistakes, clarify the law, and pass the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act.

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