Had my employer treated me with decency and respect during my pregnancy, I believe I would not have miscarried my baby. Unfortunately, my story is not unique. Pregnant workers around the country are constantly facing harsh workplace conditions – denied the modest accommodations they need to stay healthy and on the job. My job at a warehouse in Tennessee was often physically strenuous with long 12-hour shifts on my feet and no air conditioning.
Three years into my job, at 13 weeks pregnant, I was 12 hours into my shift lifting heavy boxes, when I started experiencing extreme stomach pain. I told my supervisor and requested to leave early. I had previously submitted documentation from my doctor requesting to avoid heavy lifting for my health, but it was frequently ignored. She made clear that if I left early, she would reprimand me. So I stayed and worked an extra hour in terrible pain. I had no choice. I couldn’t afford to lose my job. I left when the pain became too much to bear and my feet began to swell. Despite having worked more than 13 hours straight, my supervisor still reprimanded me for leaving before my shift was complete.
The next morning, I woke up to find my bed drenched in blood. I went to the hospital and my doctor told me there was nothing they could do — I was having a miscarriage. I still carry the pain of my pregnancy loss with me. It also angers me that many years after this happened to me, it’s still happening, mostly to women of color in low-wage, physically demanding jobs like mine, even though we were deemed “essential” workers.
We need to take a hard look at how our country supports pregnant and postpartum workers, because right now we’re failing. Modest workplace accommodations such as light duty work can help prevent complications like miscarriage and preterm birth. These complications disproportionately impact Black women due to systemic racism, with Black women 50 percent more likely to give birth prematurely. The rate of preeclampsia, one of the leading causes of maternal mortality, for Black women is sixty percent higher than for white women.
The need for accommodations to stay safe and healthy at work has only grown more urgent during the pandemic. The Centers for Disease Control has warned that pregnant people face an increased risk of severe illness from COVID-19 when compared to non-pregnant people. And, unsurprisingly, that risk is far greater for Black and Latina pregnant women. Unfortunately, pregnant workers, unlike workers with disabilities, do not have a clear legal right to workplace accommodations unless they are deemed “disabled” under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Rather, we must jump through onerous legal hoops to prove discrimination under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act to win protections as basic as the right to carry a water bottle to prevent dehydration or take bathroom breaks to prevent a urinary tract infection. Even then, according to a recent report by the non-profit A Better Balance, women are losing their cases approximately two-thirds of the time.
To make matters worse, we know women and people of color in low-wage jobs are the least likely to qualify for job-protected paid time off in America. This reality is challenging for all workers who need time off to protect their health or the health of a loved one. It’s particularly important for pregnant and post-partum workers who need to attend pre and post-natal appointments to prevent and treat serious health complications, and shouldn’t face punishment or job loss to do so.
There are many solutions to improve the health of pregnant workers and tackle the Black maternal health crisis, but there is one solution that has the chance of passage today, with overwhelming bipartisan support. The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act would guarantee an explicit right to reasonable accommodations for pregnancy, childbirth and related medical conditions unless it would cause an “undue hardship” for the employer. The law would empower us to assert our rights and get the reasonable accommodations we need in a timely fashion, rather being ignored by our managers or forced off the job, causing tremendous stress and financial hardship when we can least afford it.
The bill has passed through the House and is now ready for a vote in the Senate.
After a decade of sharing our painful stories, a global pandemic and she-cession, it’s time for the Senate to prioritize our needs. The PWFA would help us keep our jobs and do more for the millions of mothers and babies suffering from negative health effects around the country, particularly Black women. I’m calling on the Senate to prioritize the needs of pregnant workers. Pass the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act now.
Tasha Murrell is Teamsters organizer and A Better Balance Community Advocate.