If a pregnant woman in a physically demanding job requests lighter duty, does her employer have to honor the request? Not necessarily. Not even if she has a doctor’s note. Not even if that doctor’s note says she’s at high risk for a miscarriage. Not even if she’s already bleeding all over the floor.
That’s because the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA), which celebrates its 40th anniversary in October 2018, only protects against unequal treatment, as in, if an employer would (or wouldn’t) do something for a non-pregnant person, then they have to do (or not do) the same for a pregnant woman. But if the company isn’t changing expectations for other workers who could use accommodation, well, they don’t have to do a damn thing for the expecting set.
As The New York Times reported, that loophole in the law might have led to miscarriages, preterm labor and a stillbirth in women whose requests for less-taxing job responsibilities were denied. The harrowing story details the losses of multiple women, mostly at a Memphis, TN, warehouse now run by XPO Logistics, which processes orders for Verizon.
Fainting is common at that workplace, where temperatures reach above 100 degrees F. Hours are long. Expectations are high. Pay is low, but is reportedly among the highest on offer to workers in the area without college degrees. And supervisors are allegedly unwilling to reduce workloads for expectant women, who are expected to hoist 45-pound boxes instead of handle readily available paperwork that wouldn't jeopardize their pregnancies. From the story:
It’s easy to say, “No job is worth your health or that of your unborn baby.” But this job might provide the health insurance necessary to cover care for other family members, leading to a Sophie’s choice no parent, let alone one in a developed country, should have to make. Even if she does quit her job, her family might rely on her income. And while the PDA makes it illegal for employers to consider a woman’s pregnancy status in hiring, it’s hard to prove that a bump is the reason a woman doesn’t land a job, and therefore, it can be difficult for an expecting candidate, especially one considered low-skilled, to get an offer.
While Young vs. UPS, in which the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a pregnant woman, who was put on unpaid leave and lost medical coverage because she could no longer lift heavy boxes, was a step, nay a leap, in the right direction, it’s still not enough. UPS had made accommodations for people who weren’t pregnant; these warehouses, and perhaps hotels, grocery stores and even hospitals, might not and aren’t currently compelled, outside of their own morality, to do so.
So Sarah Fleisch Fink, general counsel and director of workplace policy for the National Partnership for Women & Families, reminds women to “educate themselves on what protections there might be.” Even if the Pregnancy Discrimination Act can’t help you, “if there’s a Human Resources department, go to HR, or if it’s a unionized workforce, go to your union rep. Find out if people have been accommodated.” There are also state and local laws that afford pregnant workers more rights. Plus, certain pregnancy conditions are covered under the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) Amendments Act.
Still, she recognizes that you might simply be at the “mercy of having a good employer” (check out our list of the 100 Best Companies for some leads if you’re looking.) It’s why she and others at her organization are advocating for improvements to the PDA and support the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, which would clarify the rights of pregnant workers where the PDA has come up short. As The New York Times reported, the bill hasn’t gone anywhere.
Having a healthy pregnancy should be a basic human right, one with which employers should not be allowed to interfere. XPO Logistics shouldn’t let unborn babies perish in the name of profits. A Verizon spokesperson told The New York Times that they’re investigating the claims which are inconsistent with their company's “values or the expectations and demands of contractors that work directly” for them. When they're found to be credible, it would be a good move to hire a new contractor, or pony up to give warehouse workers the same protections afforded to their white-collar employees.