When a worker finds out she is pregnant, she shouldn't worry about whether or not her job will be safe. Yet, for thousands of women each year, their happy news means bad news for their careers.
According to the 1978 Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA), an amendment to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, companies with 15 or more employees may not discriminate against a woman because she is pregnant.
In fact, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) writes, “Discrimination on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions constitutes unlawful discrimination under Title VII…Women who are pregnant or affected by pregnancy-related conditions must be treated in the same manner as other applicants or employees with similar abilities or limitations.”
Yet, many companies feel the law doesn't pertain to them – or they find ways to sneak around the PDA. In 2011 alone, almost 5,800 pregnancy discrimination cases were filed with the EEOC, and companies were forced to pay $17 million in lost wages and compensation to settle with their wronged employees. And those numbers continue to creep up – the National Partnership for Women and Families found that over the past decade, pregnancy discrimination claims have climbed 35 percent. Furthermore, one in five claims filed by women are in regards to pregnancy discrimination.
Moreover, the statistics are particularly troubling in regards to women of color. RH Reality Checkreports that claims of pregnancy discrimination by minority women climbed 76 percent between 1996 and 2005.
While discrimination can hit in any industry, it's particularly prevalent and brazen in the lower-wage service industry, in which many of the employees are women and/or minorities. As many of these jobs are more physical in nature, women often require temporary job modifications for their pregnancy, and in return, are terminated because they can't perform the work for which they are hired.
Remarked Emily J. Martin, Vice President of the National Women's Law Center to RH Reality Check, “Whenever you have intersecting forms of discrimination, that leaves workers particularly vulnerable (to exploitation and abuse) because an employer places a low value on that employee's work and feels that employee is not going to push back. Women of color and immigrant women, they are a heavier brunt of that.”
While the PDA should be reason enough to eliminate pregnancy discrimination in the U.S., legislators are working toward giving pregnant women even more protection. Currently, the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, which incorporates many of the features of the American with Disabilities Act, is now before Congress. The bill strengthens the PDA, giving women the same protections as those with other permanent or temporary disabilities and reinforcing the role of companies to provide reasonable accommodations for pregnant women.
Even with all the legal protection mandating the rights of pregnant women, companies will still try to get around the law, whether they think they're saving money or because they hold biases against moms-to-be. Hopefully, with new legislation, working women will soon see pregnancy discrimination claim numbers finally start to drop.