National Consumers League

The hostile work environment for pregnant workers


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Can a worker be fired for being pregnant? 

This question is still being asked today in workplaces across the country and soon in the Supreme Court. The answer is not as straightforward as it should be. In 1978, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) was signed into law and it amended Title VII of the Civil Rights Act to prohibit sex discrimination on the basis of pregnancy. Meaning a worker cannot be fired for being pregnant.

Sounds straightforward? 

However, some employers and employment lawyers searched for a loophole in the law and have found one. They argue that while one cannot be fired for being pregnant, one can be fired for a pregnancy related accommodation. Accommodations include: a heavy lifting restriction (often called light duty and that restricts lifting more than 25lbs.), requiring more bathroom breaks, needing to carry a water bottle to stay hydrated, using a stool instead of standing for a full shift, not working overtime, etc. Since these accommodations are often doctor ordered, women face the choice of endangering themselves and their pregnancy or losing their jobs and, in some cases, their health insurance.

In an October New York Times article, Doctor’s Letter Spells End of Job for Pregnant Employee, Angelica Valencia, a three months pregnant worker who had previously miscarried, was ordered by her doctor not to work overtime as she had another high risk pregnancy. When Ms. Valencia presented her employer with her doctor’s letter, her supervisors told her she could work only without restrictions and insisted that she work overtime.

Ms. Valencia begged her managers to excuse her from overtime as her doctor recommended. She pointed out that the company’s busy season typically ended in a month and that overtime was rarely needed for the rest of the year. Her managers still insisted that Ms. Valencia not work without a full duty medical clearance. By the end of the day Ms. Valencia was without her job. 

Unfortunately this is becoming an all too common occurrence. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the federal agency charged with enforcing federal anti-discrimination laws, has seen the rates of pregnancy related discrimination cases soar over the last few years especially among low-wage workers. 

On December 3,the Supreme Court will hear the Young v. United Parcel Service (UPS) case. The case asks the Court to rule on the argument that the PDA protects pregnant workers from being fired from their jobs for needing a reasonable workplace accommodation. In this case, UPS has a work policy of granting light duty, with a 25 lbs. lifting restriction, to employees with injuries, doctor recommendations, and, in some cases, even workers with DUIs. However, when Ms. Young presented UPS with her doctor’s letter recommending light duty she was denied her workplace accommodation and placed on unpaid leave, where she eventually lost not only her job but also her health insurance. 

In case the Supreme Court rules in favor of UPS, there is a legislative solution already in  motion. The Pregnant Worker Fairness Act was introduced in May 2013 in both the House of Representatives (H.R. 1975) and the Senate (S. 942). Along with women’s and worker advocates, the National Consumers League is moving this important piece of legislation forward. In this day and age, it’s time these outdated policies, i.e. discrimination, are removed from today’s workplaces.