WASHINGTON — Thirty-five years after Congress passed a federal law to protect pregnant women from discrimination on the job, these workers are instead denied reasonable accommodations that other workers receive and often wind up losing income, benefits or their jobs or suffering pregnancy complications, according to a report released Tuesday.
The report, "It Shouldn't Be a Heavy Lift: Fair Treatment for Pregnant Workers," by the National Women's Law Center and A Better Balance, finds that while workers with back trouble or other ailments often receive accommodations on the job, pregnant workers are routinely denied bathroom breaks and requests to avoid heavy lifting or to sit down for a while on long shifts.
"This is really shameful," said Dina Bakst, co-president of A Better Balance, a nonprofit organization that advocates for better policies for working families. "We run a legal clinic, and we hear stories like these all the time. It's a significant and widespread problem."
The majority of the pregnant workers calling with discrimination complaints work in inflexible, low-wage jobs, Bakst said, including those in the home health, retail and restaurant industries and areas traditionally dominated by men, such as trucking, policing and firefighting.
"These are women whose families really need their income," Bakst said. "We did this report because what we routinely hear from legislators and policymakers is that they don't believe or understand that pregnancy discrimination is real."
Pregnancy discrimination claims with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission have been steadily increasing over the past 15 years. In fiscal 2011, 5,797 pregnancy discrimination claims were filed with the EEOC, and $17.2 million was paid out by employers to settle those claims. The figures don't include settlements or judgments that were the result of litigation.
Emily Martin, vice president and general counsel of the National Women's Law Center, said federal laws are confusing.
"Because of that, some employers feel they don't have to accommodate pregnant workers," she said."So some women are losing their jobs, forced to take unpaid leave or [they] ignore their doctor's advice and continue to work without the accommodations because they can't afford to lose their jobs."
Pregnancy is not a disability, and it is not covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act. But changes to that law in 2008 require employers to accommodate workers' temporary disabilities. Martin argues that should include temporary, pregnancy-related disabilities and said the report urges the EEOC to write clear guidance for employers.
The new report highlights the stories of eight pregnant workers, including that of a restaurant worker in the District of Columbia who was fired from her job after her employer allegedly required that she ask his permission before using the bathroom and forbade her from drinking water, even though other workers who were not pregnant faced none of the same restrictions. The woman, who was not named, wound up on food stamps and unemployment. She filed a discrimination claim with the EEOC.
Peggy Young, a former UPS driver in Landover, Md., sued her employer in federal court when UPS allegedly refused to honor her doctor's note recommending that she not lift more than 20 pounds.
The report noted that UPS routinely gave light-duty work and limited lifting to other workers with medical conditions, "such as high blood pressure, diabetes, vision or hearing problems, limb impairments, sleep apnea, and emotional problems."
Young said she was instead told to leave the building and not return until she was no longer pregnant, "because I was too much of a liability." For the last 61/2 months of her pregnancy, she had no pay and no health insurance.
Young filed a case in federal court saying UPS had violated the 1978 Pregnancy Discrimination Act. She lost in federal court and on appeal. She has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review her case.
"What started as a very happy pregnancy became one of the most stressful times of my life," Young said in the report.