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Jarrett: We must end pregnancy discrimination

By Valerie Jarrett
updated 1:55 PM EDT, Sun July 20, 2014
More than 30 years since the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, many pregnant women still experience unfair challenges on the job.
More than 30 years since the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, many pregnant women still experience unfair challenges on the job.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Valerie Jarrett says pregnant working women shouldn't be discriminated against
  • Jarrett: Pregnant women still experience unnecessary challenges on the job
  • With women as nearly half the workforce, we can't afford to treat them unfairly, she says

Editor's note: Valerie Jarrett is senior White House adviser to President Obama, assistant to the President for public engagement and intergovernmental affairs and chair of the White House Council on Women and Girls. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- More than 30 years ago, Congress wisely passed the Pregnancy Discrimination Act. Yet today, many pregnant women still experience unfair and unnecessary challenges on the job.

Nondiscrimination has been the law of the land for over three decades, yet, in some workplaces, the standard for treatment of pregnant women has remained in the dark ages. Some are fired or demoted, with no hesitation, when a modest accommodation would allow them to continue to work and support their families.

The stories are heart-wrenching and preventable. There's the pregnant woman who was terminated when, in violation of company policy, she started carrying a water bottle on advice of her doctor to fight urinary and bladder infections.

Valerie Jarrett
Valerie Jarrett

Or the store clerk who was fired when her physician restricted her to lifting only lighter loads due to her pregnancy, even though during the course of work she rarely needed to lift heavier weights.

I vividly remember early on in my career when I was eight months pregnant, working literally around the clock, and worrying that each trip to the restroom or my need to catch the occasional catnap was causing my colleagues to question whether I could keep up.

In so many cases, modest accommodations -- adjustments that readily might be made for other employees -- are denied pregnant women, forcing expectant moms to choose between their health and that of their pregnancies, and their jobs.

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With women composing nearly half the American workforce and increasingly serving as the primary breadwinner for families, we can't afford to treat pregnant women differently than their counterparts, especially when slight job modifications could help them stay in the workforce at no risk to their health.

That's why this week, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued much-needed enforcement guidance on pregnancy discrimination. It is the first comprehensive update of the commission's guidance in more than 30 years and will translate into real relief for countless women, especially low-income women who are working hard to support their families.

Earlier this year, President Barack Obama hosted a White House Summit on Working Families that focused on the need for 21st century workplaces to adapt to the needs of the 21st century workforce with policies that are good for both families and employers.

Working parents, working families and expectant workers are vital members of our workforce. Ensuring their success is how we maintain our global economic advantage.

As EEOC Chair Jacqueline Berrien made clear when releasing the guidance, pregnancy is not a justification for excluding women from jobs that they are otherwise qualified to perform, and certainly should not be a basis for treating women less favorably than other similarly situated workers.

The EEOC is helping employees and job seekers learn more about their rights. And, as importantly, it is helping employers -- the vast majority of which want to do the right thing and only need the technical assistance to do so -- understand their obligations.

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