Hang around with enough women of childbearing age, and you’re bound to hear a story about wrongful termination or illegal hiring practices with regards to pregnancy or children. Even though the 1978 Pregnancy Discrimination Act is supposed to protect women from these practices, it has proven difficult to enforce. I myself was told during an interview (by a pregnant woman, no less) the job was not the right fit for me because it would require me to be gone from my children more than I should be. I know a professional woman who was fired from her position due to complications that arose in her pregnancy (and her ‘refusal’ to answer voicemail and texts while in the hospital).
So if it’s difficult for women to keep their jobs while experiencing a complicated pregnancy, or to keep their jobs directly after childbirth (given the strict employer qualifications that need be met in order to gain Family Medical Leave), where does this leave the woman who needs just a few accommodations on the job while pregnant?
The Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 did not address what many call ‘reasonable accommodations’ on the job for pregnant women. While revolutionary for its time, this was one gaping hole in the legislation. Recently, we’ve seen a significant spike in wrongful termination suits due to the lack of reasonable accommodations in the workplace for pregnant women. One woman was fired for carrying a water bottle on the job—doctor’s orders; note and all—at Walmart. While cashiers are allowed to have water bottles, other employees are not, and while her doctor said the best way to prevent the urinary tract infections she was contracting was to drink water throughout the day, the employee was warned and then fired for carrying a water bottle. Another woman was told by her doctor to not move heavy objects while on the job after a near-miscarriage. Although her fellow employees were willing to help her out with the tasks that required her to move more than ten pounds a few minutes out of each day, her employer would not allow her to ask for help, and ultimately fired her for being unable to perform her job duties. Both women brought civil suits against their employers for wrongful termination. Both lost.
‘Reasonable accommodations’ is language we find in the Americans with Disabilities Act, which states that employers must make reasonable accommodations for disabled employees. Often this means handicap access to buildings and restrooms, or it can require that a position be modified slightly—either temporarily or permanently—to accommodate the person with disabilities. But, pregnancy is not a disability… and there are few who are willing to consider it as such.
Now enters the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, which was recently introduced in the Senate. A similar bill was introduced in the House this spring. It would modify the Pregnancy Discrimination act to add ‘reasonable accommodations’, thereby allowing women, in theory, additional protections while pregnant on the job. This is increasingly important legislation as women now have a slight majority in the workforce, and women are working longer into their pregnancies. Sadly, Republican representatives and senators are expected to block the bill and keep it from passing in either part of Congress. Republicans state workplace bills like these place “an unnecessary burden on businesses, lowering overall profits.” This was why Republican senators blocked the Paycheck Fairness Act—an attempt to protect women from pay inequality in the workplace—earlier this year. Given the two examples provided above, it is difficult to see how a water bottle or five minutes of help from a fellow employee will hit the profit margin at all.
The larger, societal implications are what concern me, however. I am not keen on the idea of qualifying pregnancy as a disability, and I am getting tired of the “War on Women” rhetoric, but I have to ask myself why this is even an issue. We walk this line between pregnancy and child-rearing as a taboo subject in the workforce—as if it has no place in discussions in public life–and place upon a pedestal any woman who can ‘manage’ it all without any considerations from employers. We vilify women who ask for accommodation; who aren’t supermoms and junior partners at once. We keep alive the mentality of the woman who gives birth in the back forty and then immediately goes back to work tilling the fields with a newborn on the breast. And that child better be on the breast; otherwise you are condemning your child to a life of contaminates and mediocrity– all the while, you best make sure that no one actually sees you breastfeeding because that’s gross. The woman who cannot keep it all together, or the woman who has a husband that is the breadwinner of the family better be at home, pre-schooling her own children and uploading her amazing meals and crafts to Pinterest. The twists and turns in our contradictory views of what life and motherhood are supposed to be leave many women’s heads spinning.
So, perhaps pregnancy should be considered a temporary disability and fall within the auspices of the Americans with Disabilities Act—if for nothing more than to provide the most basic protections to pregnant employees while removing the societal complexities of childbearing and motherhood from the equation. Perhaps this is the only way we can hope to afford women accommodations during their child-bearing years.