California Pier 1 employee Kimberly Erin Caselman was recently forced to take unpaid medical leave from her job despite wanting to continue working. After telling her boss she was pregnant, she requested and was granted “light duty” for eight weeks only. Then she was placed on leave. Caselman has filed suit against the company, claiming it violated state law by discriminating against her because of pregnancy.
Unfortunately, even 36 years after the passage of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, which provides certain employment protection to pregnant women, pregnancy discrimination still exists. Due to the wording of the law, many employers are within their rights to fire pregnant women or place them on unpaid leave in certain cases.
Fired Over a Water Bottle at Wal-Mart
Kansas Wal-Mart employee Heather Wiseman was fired for carrying a bottle of water with her on her doctor’s advice; according to company policy, only cashiers are allowed to have bottled water with them. She sued; the court ruled in Wal-Mart’s favor.
Maryland UPS worker Peggy Young was told not to lift objects over 20 pounds after she got pregnant, and even got a doctor’s note, but her boss told her not to come back until she was no longer pregnant. She also sued but two lower courts ruled against her. Young hopes a higher court will hear her case.
These are just some of the stories of women being fired or forced out of work due to pregnancy.
“Pregnancy-Blind” Company Policy Can Work Against Pregnant Women
How is this possible? How can employers prevent pregnant women from working, and why do the courts uphold those decisions?
In such cases, the companies are following the letter of the law. Under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, employers with more than 15 employees cannot discriminate against women due to pregnancy or childbirth or related concerns. For a company, that translates to treating pregnant women the same as any other employee experiencing a disability or injury. That is, if another employee is not given accommodations or allowed exceptions, then neither is a pregnant employee.
Legislation Proposed to Close the Loopholes
Some states and municipalities including New Jersey, West Virginia, California, and New York City have passed laws requiring employers to make reasonable accommodations. But some women’s rights advocates and interest groups such as the National Women’s Law Center want to pass a federal law addressing the perceived gaps left by the 1978 Pregnancy Discrimination Act.
The proposed legislation, known as the “Pregnant Workers Fairness Act” (S. 942), would ensure employers made “reasonable accommodations” and were not legally able to force women out of their jobs due to pregnancy. So far the bill, sponsored by Sen. Robert Casey, Jr. (D-PA) and introduced in May 2013, has not made it out of committee. (The identical bill in the house, H.R. 1975, sponsored by Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), hasn’t gone beyond introduction.)
While the outlook for federal legislation isn’t very good, women may have more luck looking to state and local legislatures to pass laws that address concerns over pregnancy discrimination.