Presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren came under scrutiny the other day. Her transgression: saying that she lost a teaching job in 1971 because she was pregnant. While there might be an argument about whether or not she was officially “fired” for her pregnancy, the fact remains that, even almost 50 years later, pregnancy discrimination at work is still a thing.
“I was pregnant, but nobody knew it,” Warren told CBS News. “And then a couple of months later when I was six months pregnant and it was pretty obvious, the principal called me in, wished me luck, and said he was going to hire someone else for the job.”
CBS followed up Warren’s interview with others, focusing on retired teachers from Warren’s old workplace. Turns out, there was an unofficial policy in place: pregnant women had an employment expiration date at about five months into pregnancy.
The Pregnancy Discrimination Act
The Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) was an amendment to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Discrimination on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions constitutes unlawful sex discrimination under Title VII. Women affected by pregnancy or related conditions must be treated in the same manner as other applicants or employees who are similar in their ability or inability to work.
According to Equal Opportunity Employment Commission (EOEC), there are some strict guidelines in place. The EOEC website states:
“An employer cannot refuse to hire a woman because of her pregnancy related condition as long as she is able to perform the major functions of her job. An employer cannot refuse to hire her because of its prejudices against pregnant workers or because of the prejudices of co-workers, clients, or customers. The PDA also forbids discrimination based on pregnancy when it comes to any other aspect of employment, including pay, job assignments, promotions, layoffs, training, fringe benefits, firing, and any other term or condition of employment.”
That should protect women in the workplace. “Should” being the key word.
What Is Pregnancy Discrimination at Work?
It’s true that companies cannot openly fire or demote a woman for her pregnancy. But there are more subtle ways to drive her out, making it difficult for the wronged woman to actively prove she was discriminated against because of her pregnancy.
A good example is Nasty Gal, a woman-run company, ironically). In 2015, there was a lawsuit filed against the clothing company, alleging targeted layoffs of three pregnant employees and a male worker who was about to take paternity leave. Nasty Gal’s argument: mere coincidence as it timed perfectly with a company restructuring and layoffs.
A different case of pregnancy discrimination happened at Google. The plaintiff found that her boss, once she was pregnant, began to make rude comments about pregnant women. When she followed correct protocol and reported her to Human Resources, the discrimination intensified.
“Almost immediately upon my discussions with HR, my manager’s demeanor towards me changed, and drastically,” she wrote in an article for Fast Company. “I endured months of angry chats and emails, vetoed projects, her ignoring me during in-person encounters, and public shaming. The final blow was finding out my manager was sharing reputation-damaging remarks with other more senior Googlers not on my [product area], and actively interviewing candidates to replace me.”
Another high profile case was in 2018. Then a 30-year-old single pregnant mother, working as a packer in Walmart’s Atlanta distribution center, was told by HR that she would have to go on unpaid leave because of her pregnancy. This is an unfair financial burden. Better Balance, a family rights advocacy group, is filing a discrimination charge against Walmart with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on her behalf, since Walmart’s treatment of the woman is discriminatory and illegal.
Your Pregnancy Rights in the Workplace
Pregnancy is considered a temporary disability and is covered as such. If you can’t perform your duties while pregnant, your company must give you leave (unpaid, probably), and hold your job for you until after giving birth. This applies to companies with 15 or more employees; if you work for a smaller company, you might be out of luck.
According to the National Partnership for Women & Families, nearly 31,000 claims of pregnancy discrimination were filed with the EEOC and state employment agencies from 2011 to 2015. Obviously, not all workplaces have heard of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act.
These cases have included:
- Refusing to hire, failing to promote, demoting, or firing pregnant workers after learning they are pregnant
- Discharging workers who take medical leave for pregnancy-related conditions (such as a miscarriage)
- Limiting employment opportunities for pregnant women, such as by placing them on involuntary leave, refusing to let them continue working beyond a certain point in the pregnancy, reducing work hours, or limiting work assignments due to employer safety concerns
- Requiring medical clearances not required of non-pregnant workers
- Failing to accommodate pregnancy-related work restrictions where similar accommodations are or would be provided to non-pregnant workers
- Refusing to allow lactating mothers to return to work
- Retaliating against employees — or those close to pregnant employees — who complained about pregnancy discrimination
The Pregnancy Workers Fairness Act was introduced in 2017. This bill prohibits employment practices that discriminate against making reasonable accommodations for job applicants or employees affected by a pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions.
As Dina Bakst, A Better Balance Co-Founder and Co-President told Parentology, “As a country, we must show our support for the federal Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, which would ensure pregnant workers everywhere have the right to modest accommodations like a break when they need them, so they can stay healthy and employed.”
Think you’re being discriminated against because of pregnancy? Bakst recommends reaching out.
“Pregnancy discrimination remains pervasive,” she says. “It’s so important that pregnant workers know and are empowered to exercise their rights under the law. If you are a pregnant worker and think you might be experiencing discrimination, you can always call A Better Balance’s free, confidential legal helpline at 1-833-NEED-ABB.”