Mother’s Day is Over – But Pregnancy Discrimination Isn’t

Guest Bloggers:  Vania Leveille, Washington Legislative Office & Lenora M. Lapidus, of the ACLU Women’s Rights Project: this post was originally published on the ACLU Blog of Rights.

The ACLU Women’s Rights Project (WRP) is dedicated to ensuring that all women can lead lives of dignity free from violence and discrimination, including discrimination based on gender stereotypes.


Women make up almost half the workforce today, and, if they become pregnant, most will work throughout their pregnancy. Given this reality, you probably think the stories below are works of a bygone era. Well, you’d be wrong.

  • A woman was 16 weeks pregnant and worked as a cashier at a large retailer in New York City. One day she fainted and was taken to the emergency room. Despite doctor’s orders that she remain vigilant about drinking water, she was severely dehydrated. When the physician asked why she was not drinking enough fluids, she said that her boss would not allow her to drink water while working at the cash register.
  • When Shelly (not her real name) became pregnant, she was working two jobs in Indiana to support her family: the overnight shift stocking shelves for a major national retail chain and the day shift packing items to ship for a medical supply company. Her doctor advised her not to lift more than 20 pounds. The medical supply company immediately accommodated these restrictions, but the major national retailer refused to modify her duties. She experienced a lot of pain while doing the heavy lifting and miscarried shortly thereafter.
  • An airline ticket agent in Louisiana was told by her doctor not to lift anything heavy at work. Her employer refused to provide her with a “light duty” assignment and told her that she would be placed on unpaid leave if she brought a doctor’s note. Not having an income wasn’t an option, so throughout her pregnancy, she continued to lift heavy bags and spent 10- and 12-hour days on her feet. Toward the end of her pregnancy, she suffered stress-induced toxemia and went into labor prematurely. Her child suffered numerous health complications.
  • Julie worked as a full-time driver at UPS. During some months, the size and weight of the packages explode and the work can be physically exhausting. When she became pregnant, she requested a light duty position, just as she had done when she had been injured on the job. But UPS refused to accommodate her and put her on unpaid leave for the rest of her pregnancy.

Stories like these are all too common, and that’s why we need the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (PWFA), which was introduced in Congress today.

Despite the passage of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act over 30 years ago, which prohibits discrimination based on pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions, some employers continue to deny pregnant women the minor job modifications that could protect not only a woman’s pregnancy but also a family’s economic security, forcing pregnant women out of their jobs.

The PWFA would make it crystal clear to employers that they can’t treat pregnant women worse than other workers who have certain job limitations and instead must make reasonable accommodations if doing so doesn’t pose an undue hardship on the business.

Even though Mother’s Day is over, do one more thing for your mom and all the other moms out there: call your members of Congress and ask them to co-sponsor the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act today.

You can find the phone number for your representative here and your senators here.

Learn more about pregnancy discrimination and other civil liberty issues: Sign up for ACLU breaking news alertsfollow ACLU on Twitter, and like ACLU on Facebook.


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12 Responses to Mother’s Day is Over – But Pregnancy Discrimination Isn’t

  1. Thanks for the informative post. ^__^

    Also, in b4 wank to point out that this would treat pregnant women like women with any other temporary disability. That’s not special treatment, that’s taking circumstances into account. You know, like people should.

    • Kerandria says:

      Treating women like human beings!? Blasphemy!

    • matlun says:

      I am curious about this. What is the legal rights of people with temporary disabilities in the US? Ie if I can not lift heavy objects since I have broken my arm, would I be able to get lighter duty and how would this situation differ from issues due to pregnancy?

      I did not think this kind of temporary issue was covered by existing disability legislation, but IANAL nor am I living in the US.

      • Willard says:

        It’s a patchwork Matlun, depending on state and employer. Federally the Family Medical Leave Act guarantees 12 weeks every 12 months for serious illness/injury, pregnancy, and early child care. It’s unpaid, but they have to take you back at the same position/salary you left at. If the injury occurred at work it goes to Worker’s Compensation, there you get paid time off to recuperate. Finally American’s with Disabilities act prohibits discrimination of qualified individuals based on their disability and requires employers to make reasonable accommodations. It doesn’t define pregnancy as an impairment though. Those are the national constants as best I know, after that various states have all sorts of additional stuff they throw in the mix.

        Where I work if you go out on FMLA they make you take paid time off concurrently if you have it. Our bosses are good about finding reasonable accommodations for pregnant women as well. That said, a coworker’s husband who was in trucking had to go out on FMLA when he brought a doctor’s note about an upcoming knee surgery. He’s now not even half-way through recovery and about 80% of his FMLA leave is gone, so she’s pretty sure he basically doesn’t have a job now. Protections for temporarily disabled workers are pretty shitty in general, but it crosses a line when a business makes accommodations for some people but not others.

  2. At a restaurant I worked at a while back, one of my pregnant coworkers was having a hard time staying on her feet for 8 hours. Despite having a very slow trickle of customers and the cashier job not requiring one to move from the register, no attempt was made to accomadate her. No use of a stool was allowed, no sitting down for short periods during dead hours, nothing.

    She finally quit after getting extremely dizzy and almost passing out :/

    The reason I’m not optimistic about the PWFA is that there is, as pointed out, already legislation that should make this sort of thing illegal. There is also legislation that’s supposed to prevent this from happening to temporarily disabled workers.

    The light-duty/do-not-lift orders seem to get ignored more often than not, even in cases of temporary disability. “The health code” often trumps the need for a worker to remain hydrated.

    The current worker non-discrimination laws have to work better, if we want them to work well when applied to pregnant people.

    • sabrina says:

      right which is why that stupid code is complete bullshit. The thing is that even if they pass this law there is nothing stores can do. They either ban their employees from eating/drinking while at work or they face having their store shut down.

      • Alara Rogers says:

        So change the health code to allow the drinking of water at all times. There is no health risk presented to customers by an employee drinking water.

        Denying humans water for any reason is an unbelievably shitty thing to do, and if there are “health codes” that demand it, we need to repeal those unhealth codes for the sake of the employees. I *have* worked places where water would have been bad for the working environment — in clean rooms, where your skin flakes are also bad and they make you wear something very much like a hazmat suit while you’re working — and since clean room jobs are semiprofessional, anyone who needs a bathroom break or a water cooler break gets one. They’re pains in the ass because you have to go through an airlock, so no one wants to if they can avoid it, and to get food you have to go through *two* airlocks and two changes of costume, so you can’t get food except on authorized breaks and lunch… but as for water and potty, no one is denied those things when they need them. If they can give that to people working in a CLEAN ROOM, where your hair is a hazardous substance, they can give that to ordinary employees working cash registers or doing stocking.

  3. Victoria says:

    I agree with everyone else that this should have been covered by the existing body of law, and it’s a shame that it either isn’t or the provisions in the existing body of law are so poorly enforced that this is even an issue.

    However, I do wonder what employers are supposed to do if no alternative is available. What if there is no way to avoid heavy lifting in the nature of the job and no way to provide an alternative. I’m not in any way siding with an employer who would try to deny a worker deserved accommodations, I really want to know what happens under the legislation if accommodations are not possible.

    Additionally, I’m wondering how the accommodations in this piece of legislation compare to disability/illness accommodations. For example, if an employee who isn’t pregnant suffers from dehydration or cannot lift over a certain weight due to an injury needs an accommodation, could they be denied such accommodations under the law as it currently exists?If so, the issue goes beyond the treatment of pregnant workers and is actually an issue about what accommodations employers are willing to make-they would be more visible among pregnant workers because pregnancy is a very common cause of the conditions discussed, but if it is the case what really needs to be addressed is the employers’ unwillingness to make accommodations for workers who do not meet what they expect the standard level of ability to be, and legislation that addresses this might be more effect than legislation exclusive to pregnancy, as it would address these conditions whatever the cause (pregnancy included). I mean I assume that no one out there thinks that pregnant women shouldn’t be dehydrated but someone suffering from dehydration for other reasons doesn’t deserve accommodations or that a pregnant woman should not be forced to do lifting that would put her at risk but a woman recovering from hysterectomy who has similar lifting restrictions should have to do the lifting. I just think addressing the necessary accommodations for people whose embodied experience limits what they can do either temporarily or permanently might be more effective than honing in on a single cause, when, as some people have already suggested that the accommodations for people with injuries or temporary disabilities/impairments are lacking.

    • I’m not really sure what the legal stance for the company is if they claim there are no light tasks/non-lifting that can be found. A lot of them certainly use it as an excuse to get rid of people.

      It’s really a bit of a moot point, because I can’t think of a single case where most employers couldn’t find alternative work, especially with corporate employers. In almost every case it will be nothing but a sorry excuse.

      There’s a study on some of the discriminatory practices against both disabled workers and pregnant workers by Walmart here: http://walmart.3cdn.net/2851551578dcac476e_jrm6iyd87.pdf

      That gives a good picture of what workers, especially low-wage workers, are up against.

    • Alara Rogers says:

      Generally speaking, the only way the company literally has no other people who could handle the lifting would be if the company is very, very tiny. Even companies where everything is organized around lifting, such as UPS, is going to have jobs available for working the scanner, answering the phones, data entry… so you could take a driver and temporarily put her on some other job, and divide up her route among multiple other drivers so no one else has more than one or two stops.

      Very tiny companies could run into this issue. But very tiny companies are often highly motivated to solve it, because very tiny companies disproportionately hire relatives. If the pregnant woman who can’t lift is carrying your grandchild, you’ll find accomodations for her.

  4. MashBengal says:

    I know at a certain major retailer, the no water policy was put in place after customers complained about cashiers and other people needing water. A basic human function was the cause of distress among the patrons.

    It wasn’t until nearly half of the cashier staff fainted from dehydration on a humid, summer day in a poorly ventilated building did we get our water back.

    If I may point out that many of the above mentioned are nation wide retailers who are trying to set the standard on worker rights. Disgusting.

  5. MashBengal says:

    I know at a certain major retailer, the no water policy was put in place after customers complained about cashiers and other people needing water. A basic human function was the cause of distress among the patrons.

    It wasn’t until nearly half of the cashier staff fainted from dehydration on a humid, summer day in a poorly ventilated building did we get our water back.

    If I may point out that many of the above mentioned are nation wide retailers who are trying to set the standard on worker rights. Disgusting.

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