By Desiree Hoffman
Director of Advocacy and Policy, YWCA USA
I am very close to my siblings. Not a day passes that we don’t check in with each other via text, phone or Facebook. But, until now, I didn’t know that my sister experienced discrimination on the job when she was pregnant.
Some years ago, my sister was hired as a Sales Representative in the shoe department at a major retail chain. She made a commission based on her hourly rate, and received bonuses if customers applied for credit cards. She was only 21 years old at the time, and about to become a single mother.
Several months into her job, the Human Resources department called her into the office and said that it come to their attention that she was pregnant. Since she had to use ladders to get shoes off of the higher shelves, she was informed she would need to be transferred to another department. The HR official said, “Pregnant people don’t have good balance because of the belly.” My sister replied that she had perfectly good balance and that she did not want to change positions, as the new role was not commission-based and her pay would decrease. Like many other women, however, my sister didn’t feel empowered to fight the decision to change her position. She thought that the Pregnancy Discrimination Act only applied to the hiring and firing process. She feared that she might lose her job as a single mom, and she couldn’t risk that. This was a very difficult time in her life and she didn’t have the emotional strength to spare or the ability to risk losing her job. So, my sister toughed it out and showed a brave face to the world, although she was frustrated and worried about her ability to provide for her own and her baby’s economic future.
Although great strides have been made since the passage of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act in 1978 as an amendment to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, pregnant employees requesting reasonable accommodations still face significant discrimination in the workplace. They lack some basic protections that are necessary to enable women in certain industries to continue working throughout their pregnancy. This particularly affects women who are employed in fields such as retail sales or restaurant services that require physical activity, like running, lifting, standing or repetitive motion – activities that could pose challenges to some women during certain stages of pregnancy. And, although my sister didn’t ask for any reasonable accommodations, she was unwillingly moved into a different job that paid much less, because her pregnancy was viewed as a liability. Many women have challenged their terminations under the definition of pregnancy discrimination in the courts, and have lost. The primary reason is that this kind of discrimination is very difficult to prove as specifically related to the conditions of pregnancy.
This week marks the 35th anniversary of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, an important piece of federal civil rights legislation. It ended an era of lawful exclusion of pregnant women from the workforce, and replaced it with unprecedented access to jobs before, during, and after pregnancy. Before the Act was passed, employers could openly discriminate against pregnant women by refusing to hire them, forcing them to quit upon becoming pregnant, or changing the conditions of their employment in any other way that suited the employers’ purposes. This was the case for my sister, although she hadn’t asked for accommodations to allow her perform her job, nor did she sit down during her shifts. It is right and fair that laws should be in a place to protect women if they need slight job modifications that allow them to continue working, without having to choose between the health of their pregnancies and their economic security.
The YWCA believes the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (H.R. 1975/S.942) is vital legislation that would build upon the 1978 law that amended Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. With 41% of working mothers operating as the sole or primary breadwinners of their households, and more women continuing to work through the later stages of pregnancy, these protections are essential for both the health and economic security of families. The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act would allow pregnant women to continue to do their jobs and support their families by requiring employers to make the same sorts of accommodations for pregnancy, childbirth and related medical conditions that they do for disabilities.
Urge your Senator or Representative to co-sponsor the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act – women and their families are depending on it!
Desiree Hoffman, Director of Advocacy and Policy at the YWCA USA, leads the national organization’s advocacy efforts on women’s economic empowerment and racial justice policies. A graduate of The George Washington University with a Master’s degree in Public Policy and Women’s Studies, Desiree is a native of Pennsylvania. She and her son, Jace, live in Washington, D.C.