National Consumers League

Where’s enforcement of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act ?

Early in my career, I worked as a staffer in the House of Representatives. During my time there, the Supreme Court ruled in Gilbert vs. General Electric and handed down a decision that was so absurd and insulting to women that Congress swiftly passed a bill to overturn the decision. The Court said in Gilbert that pregnant women didn’t have the right to be treated similarly to people with disabilities i.e., not forcing them to lift heavy objects or stand for hours. They rules that this was not sex discrimination but discrimination against pregnant people, and that’s not sex discrimination. Uh huh. Right. 

I worked on passage of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, enacted in 1978, which prohibits discrimination against pregnant workers. Pregnancy has to be treated like any other disability and given proper accommodation. However, that hasn’t worked out very well for pregnant women. Thirty six years after the PDA, employers are flouting the Congressional intent of that legislation and the lower courts are letting them do it. 

Peggy Young vs. UPS will be heard by the Supreme Court December 3. Young asked UPS to excuse her from lifting heavy objects; they refused. She is one of many pregnant women whose employers won’t accommodate their need to reduce heavy duty and hours worked during pregnancy. 

Another victim is Angelica Valencia. She brought a case against her New York City employer - Fierman Produce Exchange – where she sorts potatoes –under the city’s Pregnant Workers Fairness Act. Valencia is 39 weeks along; she has a high-risk pregnancy and makes $8.70 an hour. Her husband drives a bus; she needs the job, but was told by her doctor not to work overtime. When she asked for accommodation, her company let her go because her “at-risk” pregnancy didn’t work with their need for someone who could keep up with the “fast pace”. Really? The woman’s having a baby, she has an at-risk pregnancy, and your company policies are so lacking in flexibility and humanity that you fire her. I hope she wins big against Fierman.

And on the national stage, we need once and for all to give pregnant workers the same accommodations that those with disabilities receive. It’s so sad that we have to revisit Gilbert all over again, but that’s the reality and low-income women are paying the price.   I’ll be at the Peggy Young argument in the Supreme Court and cheering her on.