"In my fourth month of pregnancy, I gave my employer a doctor’s note that restricted my lifting to no more than 20 pounds. When my coworkers had injuries, they routinely were given alternative tasks for weeks or months. But my supervisor told me that pregnancy was different and that I had to leave immediately and not return until I had no restrictions whatsoever. I was stunned. I went home and cried. How would we get by financially?"
-- Amy Crosby, hospital cleaner in Florida
Across the country, employers routinely make adjustments to jobs when workers need them because of disability or injury. But too often, pregnancy is a different story. Pregnant workers who need temporary accommodations to continue working safely are often flatly denied and forced to confront an impossible choice: risk their own health and pregnancy to keep their job or be forced out. And even though the Pregnancy Discrimination Act has been the law of the land for almost 35 years, all too often when women challenge their employers’ behavior in court, they lose.
Take Heather Wiseman, a Wal-Mart sales floor associate in Kansas. When she became pregnant, she developed bladder infections and started carrying a water bottle at work on her doctor’s advice to stay hydrated. But a company rule said that only cashiers could have water bottles at work, so Wiseman was fired. If a disability other than pregnancy required her to drink more water, company rules would have required that she be accommodated.
Or look at Peggy Young, who delivered UPS packages that had been shipped by air. The packages she delivered were relatively light and she rarely had to lift more than 20 pounds. Nevertheless, when her midwife recommended that she not lift more than 20 pounds during her pregnancy, UPS required her to go on unpaid leave, even though it had a policy of accommodating workers with disabilities, workers with on-the-job injuries, and those who had lost their certification to drive a commercial vehicle for health or other reasons. Young lost her income and her medical coverage at a time when she needed it the most.
Then there’s Amber Walker, the only female truck driver for a beer distributor in Iowa, who asked for help with heavy lifting or a temporary assignment to a different position during the final months of her pregnancy. Although the company routinely accommodated employees with injuries—and even had a policy allowing drivers who lost their license from drunk driving to apply for new positions in sales—it denied Walker’s request and forced her to take unpaid leave. Six days after her baby was born, Walker’s leave was already used up. When she failed to return to work one week after giving birth, she was fired.
These women all brought Pregnancy Discrimination Act claims that were rejected because courts concluded that pregnancy wasn’t comparable to the disabilities or on-the-job injuries that their employers regularly accommodated. The courts concluded that it was not discrimination for employers to treat pregnant workers worse than other employees.
That’s why a new law is needed and why the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (PWFA) is being reintroduced in Congress today. This bill would provide a crystal clear rule for workers, employers, and the courts: employers must make the same sorts of reasonable accommodations for pregnancy, childbirth, and related medical conditions that they are legally required to extend to workers with disabilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act. In other words, an employer would no longer be allowed to fire a pregnant employee or force her to take leave to avoid making any job modifications—as long as these changes did not cause undue hardship.
Women with jobs that require physical activity like lifting, standing, or repetitive motion—activities that pose challenges to some pregnant women —especially need the PWFA’s clear guarantee.
Under the PWFA, for example, an employer might be required to modify a no-food-or-drink policy, provide a stool to an employee who is usually required to stand all day long or reassign occasional heavy lifting to other employees for part of an employee’s pregnancy.
When employers make reasonable adjustments, pregnant workers can work longer under safe conditions and provide for their families. Employers would retain their trained workforce and avoid the high costs of employee turnover. This is a win-win proposition for pregnant workers and their employers.
The bill’s commonsense protections for maternal health and workplace fairness are long overdue, and Congress should pass it without delay.
Emily Martin is the Vice President and General Counsel of the National Women's Law Center.
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