Workplace discrimination against pregnant women continues

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In Monday’s debate, Hillary Clinton repeated Donald Trump’s 2004 claim that a pregnant woman is “an inconvenience for a business.” Such comments may prove damning in his efforts to woo female voters. But as a civil legal aid lawyer whose job is to help pregnant women and parents assert their workplace rights, I can assure you that he is far from the only employer who feels this way. 

Times may have changed in that bosses today are reluctant to call female employees “pigs, slobs, and dogs” in the workplace. But many are still surprisingly brazen in discriminating against them for being pregnant.

{mosads}The problem is particularly pervasive in low-wage jobs. When a pregnant restaurant server asked her manager why he had removed her from the schedule, he shrugged and said he assumed that she would not want to continue to work through her pregnancy. A pregnant nursing assistant who brought in a note for a lifting restriction was given a pen and a piece of paper and told to write her resignation because her employer thought it wasn’t safe for her to continue working.

It’s great that childcare issues for new parents have earned the attention they deserve in this election. But we must also consider the challenges that expectant mothers face—including blatant discrimination and workplace violations by their employers—which have received little discussion at all.

Pregnant workers are often considered to be fragile, a safety risk, or simply not willing to work as hard as other employees. Perhaps most significantly, employers frequently think that pregnant women don’t know what’s good for them.

When pregnant workers are not considered to be competent actors, discriminatory behavior may not even be recognized as discrimination. Consider the group home worker I represented who was told it wasn’t safe for her to continue to work beyond her seventh month of pregnancy, even though she had already discussed her job duties with her doctor, who said there was no risk. This behavior, however “benevolent” in the perspective of the employer, is still intentionally discriminatory.

Sometimes the discrimination isn’t covered in the veil of “niceness” at all. This was the case with a pregnant maintenance worker who was taken off the schedule because her job was a “man’s job,” and a pregnant grocery worker who was told she did not need a stool to sit on and was forced to stand for an 8-hour shift while cutting vegetables.

These stories are not remnants of a bygone era; all are clients who approached me for help in the past year. Much has changed for women in the workforce during the last half-century, but treatment of pregnant workers remains frustratingly retrograde.  Today, approximately 40 percent of American households are headed by a woman who is the primary or exclusive breadwinner; in low-income households, the ratio is closer to two-thirds. By comparison, in 1960, only 11 percent of households were dependent on a mother’s income.

Pushing pregnant women out of the workforce in 2016 has profound implications for our country’s well-being. For a low-income pregnant worker, the loss of a job typically leads to an extended period of unemployment which can have a long-term impact on the health and welfare of her family.

Pregnant women who lose their jobs have difficulty securing new employment while they are visibly pregnant, and, after the baby is born, because they need time to recover from the birth process. The lack of affordable childcare compounds the situation. Extended unemployment leads to instability in housing, food and health care, which in turn may lead to the increased likelihood of developmental delays in young children – America’s future.

Pregnant women are forced out of the workforce every day. But fortunately for the pregnant restaurant worker and nursing assistant, they were able to fight back with legal help. In both cases, civil legal aid attorneys intervened with the employer, compelling the women’s bosses to respect the workplace rights of their employees.

A major part of the solution is passing stronger laws and policies that protect pregnant employees from such abuse, such as the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, which would provide women with a clear right to reasonable accommodations during pregnancy.

But new policies aren’t enough. Another necessary part of the solution is ensuring women have access to the legal help they need to defend their rights.

For low-income pregnant women who can’t afford a lawyer, the availability of civil legal aid is critical. Pregnant workers have rights, but many need help asserting them because of the valid fear of repercussions. For example, according to a 2013 study, 71% of the new mothers surveyed said they needed more frequent breaks at work when they became pregnant, but only 42% asked for this accommodation.

Civil legal aid providers can help pregnant women fight discrimination and exercise their rights to request temporary, minor accommodations that may make or break whether they can keep their jobs. Unfortunately, given limited resources for civil legal aid, many pregnant women in the workplace have no recourse.

The election-year attention to work and family is critical and touches on important policies that can help new parents, such as paid leave and childcare. But if a pregnant woman loses her job, any workplace protections she might have received after giving birth won’t do her much good. 

Laura Brown is the founding executive director of First Shift Justice Project, a civil legal aid organization that works to empower low-income pregnant women and parents to safeguard the economic security and health of their families.


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Tags 2016 presidential election Donald Trump Hillary Clinton Pregnant Workers Fairness Act United States Congress Workplace discrimination

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