Pregnancy Discrimination Persists in America. It’s Time for Congress to Address it.
When President Jimmy Carter signed the Pregnancy Discrimination Act 41 years ago today, he said that the legislation “stands for the principle of equal justice under law.”
“I am convinced,” Carter said, “that discrimination based on pregnancy, childbirth, and related medical conditions constitutes discrimination based on sex. As its passage of this bill shows, the Congress shares that conviction – and shares as well my unalterable opposition to such discrimination.”
But more than four decades after passage of that landmark civil rights legislation, it is clear pregnancy discrimination is still far too common in the United States – forcing too many people to choose between a healthy pregnancy and a job.
Earlier this month, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D. Mass., sparked a national conversation when she shared her pregnancy discrimination story on Twitter. There were immediate attempts to discredit Warren’s experience – but there was also an outpouring from people across the nation who had similar stories to share.
One of those stories came from Michelle Durham of Alabama, who testified last week before the House Education and Labor Committee’s Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Human Services. Durham became pregnant six months after starting a new job as an EMT and was told not to lift more than 50 pounds.
“Because my job required me to lift patients and stretchers, I knew that I would have to ask Rural/Metro to temporarily reassign me so that I could follow my health provider’s orders. I didn’t think it would be a problem because I knew that Rural/Metro had a policy of giving light duty jobs to EMTs when they had problems like a back injury,” Durham said in her testimony. “I also knew that they had dispatcher jobs available that I could do and that wouldn’t involve any lifting. But I was so, so wrong.”
“They say pregnancy is supposed to be a time of happiness, but my pregnancy was filled with anxiety and fear because my employer sent me home without pay.”
– Michelle Durham, calling on Congress to pass the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act. pic.twitter.com/TEsxgLpGzP
— Committee on Education & Labor (@EdLaborCmte) October 22, 2019
Durham’s recommendation for lawmakers was to pass the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (PWFA) – a bipartisan bill that the civil rights community strongly supports. The PWFA would help strengthen existing federal protections against pregnancy discrimination and promote the economic security, health, and well-being of pregnant people and their families. Here’s what it would do:
- Clarify that employers must make reasonable accommodations for employees who have limitations related to pregnancy, childbirth, or a related medical condition, unless the accommodation would impose an undue hardship on the employer;
- Protect pregnant workers from being fired, forced to take paid or unpaid leave, or retaliated against if they request or use an accommodation; and,
- Require an interactive process between employers and pregnant workers to determine appropriate reasonable accommodations, similar to the Americans with Disabilities Act, a law that is already familiar to employers and employees.
As Durham’s testimony demonstrated, the consequences of not being granted a reasonable accommodation – of being fired for being pregnant – are devastating.
“After Rural/Metro forced me to take leave in September 2015, I was unemployed for about seven months. I looked hard for a job but couldn’t find one. I couldn’t pay my rent, and had to move in with my grandmother,” Durham said. “I was excited about meeting my baby, but his upcoming birth terrified me. I worried all the time about how I would provide for him. I racked up a lot of credit card debt to take care of me and my son and to repay the loans I’d taken out for my EMT training. And I still have a hospital bill from when I gave birth in March 2016 because I didn’t have health coverage.”
Although Durham eventually got another job, she wasn’t receiving overtime pay or other benefits she had received at Rural/Metro, forcing her to find a second job. She recently became employed at a pet store, but she still doesn’t have health insurance – and her son is on Medicaid.
Combating pregnancy discrimination is also a racial justice issue. As we told members of Congress earlier this month in a letter urging support for the PWFA:
Black women are particularly vulnerable to pregnancy discrimination. According to the National Partnership for Women & Families, between 2011 and 2015, Black women filed nearly 30 percent of all pregnancy discrimination charges with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, even though Black women made up only 14 percent of women in the workforce ages 16 to 54.
It is past time for that disparity – and others, like the racial disparities in infant and maternal mortality – to end.
Forty-one years ago, passage of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act was critical to opening up the workplace to pregnant people who were routinely denied employment or pushed off the job. Today, the bipartisan Pregnant Workers Fairness Act provides a critical opportunity to fulfill the promise of that law. We urge Congress to seize it.