Few people realize that getting pregnant can mean losing your job. Imagine a woman who, seven months into her pregnancy, is fired from her position as a cashier because she needed a few extra bathroom breaks. Or imagine another pregnant employee who was fired from her retail job after giving her supervisors a doctor's note requesting she be allowed to refrain from heavy lifting and climbing ladders during the month and a half before her maternity leave: that's what happened to Patricia Leahy. In 2008 a federal judge in Brooklyn ruled that her firing was fair because her employers were not obligated to accommodate her needs. We see this kind of case in our legal clinic all the time. It happens every day to pregnant women in the United States, and it happens thanks to a gap between discrimination laws and disability laws.
Federal and state laws ban discrimination against pregnant women in the workplace. And amendments to the Americans With Disabilities Act require employers to provide reasonable accommodations to disabled employees (including most employees with medical complications arising from pregnancies) who need them to do their jobs. But because pregnancy itself is not considered a disability, employers are not obligated to accommodate most pregnant workers in any way.
As a result, thousands of pregnant women are pushed out of jobs that they are perfectly capable of performing - either put on unpaid leave or simply fired - when they request an accommodation to help maintain a healthy pregnancy. Many are single mothers or a family's primary breadwinner. They are disproportionately low-income women, often in physically demanding jobs with little flexibility.
Thankfully, State Senator Liz Krueger, a Democrat from Manhattan, and Assembly woman Aileen Gunther, a Democrat from Sullivan County, have introduced legislation to fill this gap in New York. Their bills - S. 6273 and A. 9114 - would require employers to provide reasonable accommodations for pregnant women whose health care providers say they need them, unless doing so would be an undue hardship for the employer.
These accommodations could include providing a seat for employees who spend long periods standing, allowing more frequent restroom breaks, limiting heavy lifting or transferring an employee to a less strenuous or hazardous position. As of 2010, seven states, including California, had passed laws requiring private employers to provide at least some accommodations. And they have been used countless times to help pregnant women keep their jobs.
This kind of law is a public health necessity. Without its protections, pregnant women are reluctant to ask for the accommodations they need for their own health and for the health of their unborn children. For many women, a choice between working under unhealthy conditions and not working is no choice at all. In addition, women who can work longer into their pregnancies often qualify for longer periods of leave following childbirth, which facilitates breastfeeding, bonding with and caring for a new child and a smoother and healthier recovery from childbirth.
Pregnancy-related accommodations also promote economic security for families. Women who are forced early into unpaid leave are set back with lost wages and, when they return to work, with missed advancement opportunities. Women who are let go don't just lose out on critical income - they must fight extra hard to re-enter a job market that is especially brutal on the unemployed. Worse yet, they often confront a bias against hiring mothers with small children.
Finally, employers might consider that providing accommodations to pregnant workers would even be good for the bottom line, in the form of reduced turnover, increased loyalty and productivity and healthier workers. With minor job modifications, a woman might be able to work up until the delivery of her child and return to work fairly soon after giving birth. If she were forced out instead, her employer would waste time and money finding a replacement. In the worst-case scenario, employers could be responsible for much higher medical costs if their workers were afraid to ask for accommodations and instead continued doing work that endangered their pregnancies.
Three-quarters of women now entering the work force will become pregnant on the job, yet gaps in our civil rights laws leave this enormous class without the right to the modest accommodations that would protect them. New York's Legislature should pass this law as soon as possible, and other states should follow. No pregnant woman in this country should have to choose between her job and a healthy pregnancy.
The writer is a lawyer and founder president of A Better Balance: The Work and Family Legal Center
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