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New Report Highlights Employers' Discrimination Against Pregnant Workers, Refusal to Make Basic Accommodations

Pregnant women are fired or forced to take unpaid leave–as told by the workers themselves

June 18, 2013

Pregnant workers are facing discrimination on a routine basis, according to a new report released today by the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC) and A Better Balance (ABB). It Shouldn’t Be a Heavy Lift:  Fair Treatment for Pregnant Workers shows that many employers are refusing to make basic accommodations that they routinely give workers with disabilities or on-the-job injuries.

Three-quarters of women entering the labor force will be pregnant and employed at some point in their lives. While many women will work through their pregnancies with no need for changes in their jobs, others will need temporary adjustments to job rules or duties as a result of pregnancy—such as taking additional bathroom breaks, being allowed to sit instead of stand, or honoring a lifting restriction. 

The report describes how pregnant workers—especially those who work in low-wage jobs or jobs traditionally held by men—are all too often fired or forced to take unpaid leave when they request these kinds of temporary, reasonable modifications to job duties so they can continue working.  Because some employers misunderstand and ignore their legal obligations to make the same types of accommodations for pregnant women that they do for other similarly situated workers, such as those with disabilities, too many women—including food service workers, home health aides and nurses, package handlers, cashiers, cleaners, police officers, mail carriers and office clerks—are denied simple accommodations when they face a conflict between their duties at work and the physical requirements of pregnancy.

 “Women make up almost half of the labor force, but all too often they are forced to make an impossible choice:  risk their own health and pregnancy to keep a job or lose their income at the moment they can least afford it,” said NWLC Vice President and General Counsel Emily Martin.  “Pregnant workers are ready, willing and able to continue working but they are often forced out by employers who refuse to make minor accommodations. These women and their families pay a steep price when they’re pushed out of jobs. There’s no reason for pregnancy to be a job-buster.” 

The report features personal accounts of women who lost income, lost their jobs and health insurance, or continued to work at risk to their health when they were denied temporary accommodations.  As the accounts note, the types of accommodations denied the pregnant women were frequently given to co-workers with injuries or disabilities.  A food preparer at a fast food restaurant in Washington, D.C., describes being fired after she was denied permission to drink water on-the-job and eat during her breaks.  A cashier at a Dollar Tree store on Long Island recalls not being allowed to sit on a stool, although workers in other Dollar Tree stores did.  Instead, she was required to stand on her feet for eight to ten hours at a stretch, which landed her in the emergency room several times.  A letter carrier in Minnesota used up her paid leave when her employer refused to let her work inside on extremely hot days—despite offering that option to employees with on-the-job injuries.  By the time her baby was born, her depleted sick leave left her with no income during her maternity leave.  When a truck driver in Maryland was denied help with occasional heavy lifting, she was forced onto unpaid leave and lost her health insurance, even though truck drivers with disabilities and on-the-job injuries, or who had lost their commercial driver’s licenses, were accommodated.

“Seeing this many pregnant women denied equal opportunity in the workplace in the year 2013 is shocking,” said Dina Bakst, ABB Co-Founder & Co-President and author of the new book Babygate:  What You Really Need to Know about Pregnancy and Parenting in the American Workplace. “Providing basic rights should not be a heavy lift. And it just makes good business sense for employers to meet their legal obligations. By keeping their pregnant workers healthy and on the job, they will keep down costs, retain experienced workers and build loyalty among employees. Let’s step out of the dark ages and recognize that pregnant women are an important part of the workforce – and are treated accordingly.”

Employers and (in too many instances) courts misunderstand the legal protections provided by the American Disabilities Act Amendments Act of 2008,  which expands the definition of disabilities that employers must accommodate to include temporary impairments.  Additionally, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act requires employers to treat pregnant women as well as they treat other employees who are similar in their ability to work.

As the report explains, widespread confusion and an absence of clear federal agency guidance mean that pregnant workers are often illegally treated worse than those with similar limitations arising out of disability or injury. For example, in many workplaces, while a back injury preventing a worker from lifting is accommodated, a lifting restriction arising out of pregnancy is a basis for termination.

On the state level, only eight states have laws that expressly require some or all employers to provide certain types of accommodations to some pregnant workers:  Alaska, California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Louisiana, Maryland and Texas. The New York legislature is currently considering the Women’s Equality Act, which would include such a provision.

The report outlines recommendations to ensure fair treatment for pregnant workers, including the need for federal agencies, like the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, to issue strong and clear guidance on employers’ legal obligation to accommodate pregnant workers; passage of the federal Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, which would require employers to extend to their pregnant employees the same commonsense adjustments they already provide workers with disabilities, and expansion of state law protections guaranteeing reasonable accommodations for pregnant workers.

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To interview women featured in the report please contact Maria Patrick (mpatrick@nwlc.org) or Elizabeth Gedmark (egedmark@abetterbalance.org). 

For more analysis of the issue of pregnant workers:

NWLC Fact Sheets:

ABB Information: