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More and More Employers Are Getting the Memo on Pregnancy Discrimination

Pregnant woman
Pregnant woman
Galen Sherwin,
Former Senior Staff Attorney,
ACLU Women’s Rights Project
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December 7, 2015

When Jaimie Cole, a certified nursing assistant, was in her third trimester of pregnancy, she developed high risk of preeclampsia, a common condition involving high-blood pressure that can lead to preterm labor or even death. Her doctor advised her not to do any heavy lifting. Unfortunately, Jaimie’s job, which entailed helping patients in and out of bed and assisting them with bathing and other tasks, regularly required her to do just that. So Jaimie gave her employer, the Brian Center, a long-term-care facility owned by Sava SeniorCare, a doctor’s note and requested a temporary light duty assignment. Instead, she was sent home without pay for the rest of her pregnancy — because, according to her supervisor, pregnant women weren’t eligible for light duty.

As a soon-to-be mother of three and the primary breadwinner in her family, losing her paycheck could not have come at a worse time for Jaimie. She fell behind on her bills, went into credit card debt, was forced to sell her car, and lost approval for a mortgage to buy her house. She couldn’t even afford to furnish a nursery for her new baby.

Jaimie contacted the ACLU, which filed a pregnancy discrimination claim on her behalf. Happily, this week we reached a settlement in her case. Sava has agreed to pay Jaimie back for the time she was forced off the job and to compensate her for the financial and emotional harms she and her family suffered. Sava has also implemented a new policy for pregnant workers, making sure that in the future they’ll get light duty or other accommodations on the same terms as other employees needing temporary job changes.

What happened to Jaimie is more common than you might think. In many cases, women are able to work throughout their pregnancies without disruption, but in others, job modifications may be necessary. These can be as simple as permission to sit on a stool, carry snacks or a water bottle, or take short breaks — minor adjustments that should be no-brainers for employers. In some cases — especially in low-wage jobs that require prolonged standing (like retail or food service), and jobs involving heavy lifting or physical activity (like Jaimie’s) — women may require other kinds of short-term modifications, including temporary job reassignment. In either case, no woman should be forced to choose between her paycheck and a healthy pregnancy.

Fortunately, there’s growing optimism that women will face that choice less and less in the future as the courts increasingly side with pregnant women over their employers. Jaimie’s case is one of several that have settled in the wake of the Supreme Court’s ruling last spring in Young v. U.P.S. — a similar case brought by Peggy Young, a UPS delivery driver who was also forced off the job due to a lifting restriction. The court ruled in favor of Young, finding that employer policies that deny women accommodations for pregnancy-related conditions, while providing such accommodations to other workers with similar limitations, can violate sex discrimination laws. Young’s case subsequently settled (after UPS also changed its policy), as have several cases the ACLU has worked on since the Young decision.

These settlements and policy changes are encouraging: Employers may finally be getting the memo that if they keep forcing pregnant women off the job, they could end up paying a steep price. And the fact is women like Jaime should never have had to sue their employers in the first place.

The simplest and best solution is to pass the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act. This bipartisan federal bill would affirmatively require employers to provide reasonable accommodations to women who need them during pregnancy, so long as it doesn’t impose an undue burden on the employer. Congress should make this bill a priority. In the meanwhile, the ACLU continues to fight for pregnant workers like Jaimie and their families to ensure they receive the fair treatment they deserve.

If you’ve suffered pregnancy discrimination at work, tell us your story.

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