At a time when most pregnant women work, there are new efforts to keep companies from unfairly targeting employees because of a pregnancy. The allegations of pregnancy discrimination persist and have even risen in recent years despite a decades-old law against it, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Advocates say those most vulnerable are low-wage workers like Natasha Jackson, a former account representative at Rent-A-Center in Charleston, S.C. She cajoled customers to pay up and occasionally delivered heavy rental furniture. After she became pregnant in the spring of 2008, co-workers helped out with deliveries. Then "one morning I came in and I was told I had to wait to clock in until I spoke to both the district manager and the head of human resources," she says.
They told her about another pregnant employee who'd hurt herself lifting a rental TV. They put Jackson on two weeks' paid vacation and sent a medical form for her doctor to fill out. The doctor wrote that — as with many pregnant women — Jackson shouldn't lift more than 20 pounds.
"When I guess they read that, that's what they started to use to keep me out of work," Jackson says.
Jackson made more than her husband, who was working temporary jobs at the time. When the head of human resources told her she'd have to go on unpaid leave, she says she became distraught on the phone with him.
"So he told me, 'Calm down, you still probably can get a job somewhere. Try to find a job bagging groceries or something,' " she recalls.
"We all think that pregnancy discrimination is illegal, but what has happened is the way that law has been interpreted," says Dina Bakst, co-president of A Better Balance, an advocacy group that pushes for family-friendly work policies.
Bakst says courts have interpreted the 1978 Pregnancy Discrimination Act narrowly, allowing employers to deny the same kinds of accommodations they make for those with on-the-job injuries, say a pulled muscle or broken bone.
Recognizing such limitations, when Congress expanded the Americans with Disabilities Act in 2008, regulators interpreted it to include pregnancy-related impairments. But — and this is a point feminists have long insisted upon — advocate Bakst says normal pregnancy is not a disability.
"What pregnant women typically need are really routine, modest accommodations," she says. "An extra bathroom break, a stool, a water bottle."
These may be simple things, yet they're sometimes denied, especially to low-wage workers.
Bakst says she recently heard from an emergency room doctor in New York who had treated a pregnant retail worker after she fainted and collapsed from severe dehydration. The woman was not allowed to drink water while standing for hours behind the cash register. To address a situation like that, Congress is trying another legislative fix to more clearly spell out the obligations of employers.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., recently introduced the House version of the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act.
"The bill says exactly as the [Americans with Disabilities] Act says: An employer must make a reasonable accommodation provided it's not an undue hardship," Nadler says.
It's similar to existing state law in California and newly proposed legislation in New York. But so far there are no Republican co-sponsors, and business groups have declined to take a position.
"As a defense lawyer, I question the notion that the law needs amendment or the law has some holes in it," says Gerry Maatman of Seyfarth Shaw. He notes the EEOC has listed pregnancy discrimination as one of its top emerging issues.
"A lot of enforcement dollars and effort will be undertaken by the EEOC, with or without any amendments to the law," he says. "I think that advocates are, in essence, just shining a spotlight on an issue that is certainly one that's being litigated on a daily basis in the federal courts."
To be sure, the legal process is helping some. Just last month, a Florida hospital settled with a housekeeper who was pushed out after suffering from pregnancy-induced carpal tunnel syndrome. She will now be allowed to return to work after maternity leave.
But the story is not the same for numerous others, including Jackson, the woman forced out of a furniture rental company because she couldn't lift heavy things. She never did get her job back.
"Everything from that moment in my life took just a down spiral," she says. "I never recovered from it."
Jackson and her husband had to back out of buying their first house. They took a financial hit with her many months of unpaid leave. They're now divorcing. Jackson contested the loss of her job, but after three years, an arbitrator decided that it was perfectly legal.