Marcia Greenberger Writes on Fair Treatment for Pregnant Workers

In honor of The White House Summit on Working Families in Washington, DC on June 23rd, MAKERS is dedicating each day this week to a specific theme that will be covered at the summit. Today we cover pregnancy in the workplace and have a special article from lawyer and women's advocate Marcia Greenberger.


It Shouldn’t Be a Heavy Lift: Fair Treatment for Pregnant Workers

By Marcia Greenberger, Co-President of the National Women’s Law Center

Pregnancy can be hazardous to your job. Just ask Amy Crosby, who worked as a cleaner in a hospital in Florida. She had to lift 50-pound bags of trash and linen each day, but when she was almost six months pregnant her doctor advised her to avoid heavy lifting for the rest of her pregnancy. Amy knew other cleaners at the hospital who had been allowed to do clerical work or fold laundry when they had temporary medical limitations. In fact, the hospital had a policy of accommodating on-the-job injuries and disabilities but refused to make any accommodations for Amy because her medical limitations arose out of pregnancy.  Instead, she was forced onto unpaid leave and threatened with termination unless she was able to return to her job without restrictions when her leave ran out weeks before her due date.  Without her wages, her family struggled to cover basic expenses. 

My organization, the National Women’s Law Center, was able to help Amy and work with the hospital to come up with a solution that addressed her needs and allowed her to keep her job. But many pregnant workers are not so lucky, and their families lose a paycheck at the very moment they can least afford it. Over and over, we hear from women who are forced to choose between ignoring their doctor’s advice and losing their jobs during pregnancy. Women shouldn’t ever be put in this no-win position.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. More than 35 years ago, Congress passed the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA), which says employers must treat pregnant workers as well as they treat those who are “similar in their ability or inability to work.” As someone who worked to secure these crucial protections in 1978, I can tell you exactly what the PDA was intended to do: Put an end to employers telling employees that if you need health insurance for an illness you’re covered, but if you’re pregnant, you’re out of luck.  Ensure workplace temporary disability policies no longer provide benefits for disabilities caused by injuries while excluding disabilities caused by pregnancy. And make clear that if an employer is willing and able to make changes on the job to accommodate a worker who can’t lift because of a back injury, he has to make the same changes for a worker who can’t lift because she’s pregnant. 

Some employers still haven’t gotten the message. And so pregnant cashiers are losing their jobs if their doctors say they need a stool to avoid health complications. Pregnant fast food workers are being fired when their doctors say they need to drink water during their shifts or risk dangerous dehydration.  And pregnant retail workers are being forced onto unpaid leave because their doctors have instructed them to stay off ladders.  The ironic thing is, this isn’t just terrible for pregnant workers and their families; it’s also bad for business. Studies show that making accommodations for employees who need them generally costs employers little or nothing  but provides real business benefits in the form of improved recruitment and retention, increased productivity, reduced absenteeism, improved workplace safety, and more diverse workforces.  Women are critical to businesses’ success and to the financial stability of families today. For all these reasons, it is long past time to make room for pregnancy on the job.

Click here to watch interviews with MAKERS like Barbara Walters, Wendy Clark, Christiane Amanpour and more on pregnancy in the workplace. 

Marcia D. Greenberger is co-president of the National Women’s Law Center. Founding the Center forty years ago made her the first full-time women's rights legal advocate in Washington, D.C. She is currently recognized as a leader in the passage of legislation for new legal protections of women, particularly in the areas of education and employment, health and reproductive rights, and family economic security.