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Nevertheless, Pregnancy Discrimination Persists

A pregnant office employee sitting at her desk and talking to one of her colleagues.
By Kellie Pantekoek, Esq. on March 12, 2020 9:14 AM

At the presidential Democratic debate in South Carolina late last month, Sen. Elizabeth Warren accused former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg of discriminating against a former employee who was pregnant.

Warren then went on to share her own story about facing pregnancy discrimination when working for a school district in her early 20s. The anecdote was met by resounding applause from the debate crowd. It was evident that even though the story happened decades ago, it was all too familiar.

The Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978

Not too long after Warren's story took place, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 was enacted. It provided badly-needed protections for female workers by forbidding discrimination on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions.

While the law was effective at allowing more women to continue working while pregnant, it did not stop pregnant women from facing discrimination in the workplace. More than forty years later, pregnancy discrimination is still common in America, including within the nation's largest businesses.

From Walmart to Wall Street, Discrimination Continues

Whether women are working at Walmart or on Wall Street, an exposé by the New York Times revealed that many have experienced serious career obstacles — and in some cases, total derailment — after becoming pregnant or returning from parental leave.

After studying dozens of pregnancy discrimination cases, Times reporters found that the type of discrimination pregnant women face often varies by job setting. They found discriminatory treatment tends to be more overt in jobs that require physical labor — such as heavy lifting or patrolling — and less overt in office settings.

Women in physically demanding jobs said they were fired for asking to carry water bottles, take breaks, or temporarily avoid duties that were making them ill. Office workers said they were passed up for promotions or opportunities after becoming pregnant, or because of the timing of their parental leave.

In both types of work environments, women said that they were subjected to sexist and discriminatory comments from superiors or colleagues about their bodies, their brains, or their abilities after becoming pregnant or returning from leave.

Accommodation is an issue that comes up frequently in pregnancy discrimination cases. Between 2006 and 2016, pregnancy accommodation cases increased 315%. The issue arises when women want to keep working but need workplace accommodations to do so. 

However, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act does not specifically require employers to provide pregnancy-related accommodations to employees. Instead, employees are required to offer the same treatment to pregnant employees as they do for non-pregnant employees with temporary disabilities. 

For example, if an employer allows an employee with an injury to perform light-duty work, then the employer must also allow a pregnant worker to receive the same accommodation.

Losing out on raises and opportunities for career advancement is also a common complaint in pregnancy discrimination claims. In fact, women lose 4% of their hourly wages with each additional child they have, according to a 2014 study by a sociologist at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

Discrimination Claims Reach All-Time High

Women who are discriminated against can file a claim with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Pregnancy discrimination claims with the EEOC are now at an all-time high after rising each year for the past two decades.

There were close to 35,000 pregnancy discrimination claims filed with the EEOC between 2010 and 2019, resulting in case settlements if $158.6 million.

Though pregnancy discrimination occurs at all types of workplaces and affects both high- and low-wage workers, low-wage workers and women of color are disproportionately impacted.

A report by the National Partnership for Women & Families shows that Black or African-American women filed 28.6 percent of all pregnancy discrimination charges with the EEOC between 2011 and 2015, despite making up only 14.3 percent of the female labor force.

Examples of Pregnancy Discrimination in the Workplace

Sometimes it's hard for workers to know if they have been discriminated against, especially if the treatment does not result in being fired. Examples of pregnancy discrimination include:

  • Employers refusing to hire, refusing to promote, or firing a pregnant employee for reasons related to pregnancy.
  • Employers asking pregnant applicants illegal interview questions that they do not ask non-pregnant employees.
  • Employers forbidding a pregnant employee from continuing to work even though she wants to continue working and can perform the job duties.
  • Employers not honoring the same sick or medical leave policy for pregnancy-related care as they do for other medical care.
  • Employers not holding a job open for a pregnancy-related absence as long as they do for other employees out on sick or disability leave.
  • Employers providing less insurance coverage for pregnancy-related matters than other health matters that cost the same.

Ultimately, employers (with 15 or more employees) cannot treat workers unfavorably on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, or a medical condition related to pregnancy or childbirth.

With mothers being the primary or co-breadwinners in 40% of American families, pregnancy discrimination is an issue that impacts many in the U.S. labor force. Hopefully, if the issue continues to be called out on big stages (like the presidential Democratic debate) and small (individual claims with the EEOC), it won't persist for another 40 years.

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