Skip to main content

Fairness needed for pregnant workers

By Arjun Sethi, Special to CNN
updated 8:34 PM EST, Sun November 25, 2012
Arjun Sethi says existing laws aren't sufficient to protect pregnant women from job discrimination.
Arjun Sethi says existing laws aren't sufficient to protect pregnant women from job discrimination.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Arjun Sethi: Pregnant woman aren't adequately protected against job discrimination
  • He says some have been fired for temporary inability to perform some job tasks
  • Legislation should grant them same protection given to disabled workers, Sethi says
  • Sethi: Pregnancy is not a disability, but pregnant workers should be treated reasonably

Editor's note: Arjun Sethi is a lawyer in Washington and a frequent commentator on civil rights and social justice-related issues. He collaborated on this essay with the National Women's Law Center.

(CNN) -- Peggy Young just wanted to support her family. As an employee at United Parcel Services, she delivered letters and packages, a job that sometimes required heavy lifting. When she became pregnant, she asked for a lighter assignment. UPS denied the request. Although they routinely granted accommodations to other employees, Young wasn't eligible.

Throughout America, pregnant women in physically demanding jobs face an unconscionable choice: protect their health or keep their job. In Kansas, Heather Wiseman was fired for carrying a water bottle to remain hydrated; in New York, Patricia Leahy was terminated for refusing to "perform heavy lifting, climbing ladders and other strenuous movements." In Texas, Tennessee, and Alabama, women were fired, just like Young, because they couldn't lift heavy objects.

The Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 requires employers to treat pregnant women the same way they treat other employees with similar limitations. If a moving company permits a worker to sit at a desk because of a temporary back condition then a pregnant woman with a lifting restriction must be extended the same accommodation. Congress' message was clear: pregnancy and work are compatible.

Arjun Sethi
Arjun Sethi

Employers, however, routinely ignore this mandate, and are forcing pregnant women out of the workplace. In each of the cases just described, the pregnant woman lost in court because she could not prove discrimination. The courts explained that the refusal to provide accommodations was based on gender-neutral and pregnancy-blind policies that were legal, albeit unfair. Wiseman's termination for carrying water, for example, was upheld because all employees were prohibited from carrying water on the sales floor. Gender-neutral? Yes. Fair? No. Not every employee has a medical need to carry water to remain hydrated and prevent infection.

Link between autism and infections during pregnancy explored

This reasoning has also led to shocking inconsistencies and has permitted employers to treat pregnant workers worse than other employees. Consider Young's case. UPS had a policy of accommodating employees who were involved in a car accident or lost their driver's license due to drunk driving but fired Young after she requested a lighter assignment. In another case, the New York City Transit Authority accommodated workers who were injured while exercising but forced a pregnant worker out. A consortium of public-interest groups led by the ACLU is now helping Young appeal her case to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



To be sure, some courts have come out the other way. These judges are ensuring that pregnant workers enjoy the same opportunities as other employees and are not penalized by unfair policies that employers defend as gender-neutral.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is also combating the problem and has designated pregnancy discrimination an enforcement priority for the next four years.

These efforts, however, aren't enough. Not every pregnant employee who is wronged can find a lawyer nor can the budget-constrained EEOC prosecute every case. And many courts have shown a disturbing willingness to turn back these claims and open gaping loopholes in the Pregnancy Discrimination Act.

The problem, meanwhile, is vast. Many women are the breadwinners of their family and can't afford unpaid leave. Others will lose seniority or get passed over for promotions when they return to the job. For those who are fired, they face the daunting challenge of securing employment in a still flailing economy that penalizes the unemployed, not to mention mothers, who are less likely to be hired and promoted.

Antidepressants during pregnancy can be tricky

Why dads gain pregnancy weight
If pregnant, weigh antidepressant risks

New legislation championed by the National Women's Law Center, and recently introduced in both the House and Senate, would close many of these loopholes. The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act would require employers to offer pregnant employees the same kinds of accommodations they offer the disabled under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Make no mistake: pregnancy is not a disability. It's a joyous part of life. But by elevating it to the same level of protection as disabilities, the rule would be clear: employers could not fire or force pregnant employees out of the workplace just because they request a reasonable accommodation. Fair allowances -- the right to carry a water bottle, a chair, intermittent breaks, a lifting restriction -- would have to be respected.

The first piece of legislation President Obama signed into law was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. Ledbetter had worked tirelessly for Goodyear for nearly two decades only to learn that she had been denied equal pay. She later brought suit against her employer but lost after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that she had waited too long to bring her case. In an important joint effort, Congress and the president passed legislation allowing claims like Ledbetter's to proceed.

Pregnant workers need protection, too. All they seek is fair treatment. Is that too much to ask?

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Arjun Sethi.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:37 AM EDT, Tue October 28, 2014
Errol Louis says forced to choose between narrow political advantage and the public good, the governors showed they are willing to take the easy way out over Ebola.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Mon October 27, 2014
Eric Liu says with our family and friends and neighbors, each one of us must decide what kind of civilization we expect in the United States. It's our responsibility to set tone and standards, with our laws and norms
updated 7:45 AM EDT, Mon October 27, 2014
Sally Kohn says the UNC report highlights how some colleges exploit student athletes while offering little in return
updated 3:04 PM EDT, Sun October 26, 2014
Terrorists don't represent Islam, but Muslims must step up efforts to counter some of the bigotry within the world of Islam, says Fareed Zakaria
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Scott Yates says extending Daylight Saving Time could save energy, reduce heart attacks and get you more sleep
updated 8:32 PM EDT, Sun October 26, 2014
Reza Aslan says the interplay between beliefs and actions is a lot more complicated than critics of Islam portray
updated 7:19 AM EDT, Mon October 27, 2014
Julian Zelizer says control of the Senate will be decided by a few close contests
updated 8:12 AM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
The response of some U.S. institutions that should know better to Ebola has been anything but inspiring, writes Idris Ayodeji Bello.
updated 5:01 PM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
Paul Callan says the grand jury is the right process to use to decide if charges should be brought against the police officer
updated 12:19 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Theresa Brown says the Ebola crisis brought nurses into the national conversation on health care. They need to stay there.
updated 6:35 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Patrick Hornbeck says don't buy the hype: The arguments the Vatican used in its interim report would have virtually guaranteed that same-sex couples remained second class citizens
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
The Swedes will find sitting on the fence to be increasingly uncomfortable with Putin as next door neighbor, writes Gary Schmitt
updated 12:32 PM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
The Ottawa shooting pre-empted Malala's appearances in Canada, but her message to young people needs to be spread, writes Frida Ghitis
updated 9:48 PM EDT, Sat October 25, 2014
Paul Begala says Iowa's U.S. Senate candidate, Joni Ernst, told NRA she has right to use gun to defend herself--even from the government. But shooting at officials is not what the Founders had in mind
updated 6:08 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
John Sutter: Why are we so surprised the head of a major international corporation learned another language?
updated 5:54 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Jason Johnson says Ferguson isn't a downtrodden community rising up against the white oppressor, but it is looking for justice
updated 12:21 PM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Sally Kohn says a video of little girls dressed as princesses using the F-word very loudly to condemn sexism is provocative. But is it exploitative?
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
updated 10:14 AM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT