Working-Class Women Are Better Off Injured Than Pregnant
3:30 pm, June 13th | by Grace Rasmus
Being pregnant at work is never a cakewalk but some women have it tougher than others. While mothers-to-be with white-collar careers have the luxury of sitting at a desk and taking as many bathroom breaks as needed, others have more physically demanding jobs with inflexible employers. In many cases, working-class pregnant women’s needs fall secondary to those of disabled workers, even in instances when pregnancy is similar to some disabilities in terms of lack of mobility and temporariness.
“We have a situation where pregnant workers are being treated worse than other workers,” explained Dina Bakst, the co-founder of A Better Balance, a New York nonprofit that advocates for low-income, working families. ”[This issue] disproportionately impacts low-wage women and women in physically demanding jobs. Women don’t have a clear legal right [to a reasonable accommodation], and yet disabled workers—you know, a man could come back from a ski accident and it’s like, ‘Let me get you an ergonomically designed chair.’”
Yvette, a former manager of a grocery store bakery, spoke to Gothamist about her frustrating experience with working while pregant; due to her employer’s lack of flexibility, Yvette was forced to make sacrifices:
… A series of miscarriages… had led to the discovery of a clotting disorder. When Yvette came back to work after her first prenatal appointment, it was with a list of restrictions from her doctor: no lifting over 5lbs. and no more dragging around heavy bakery carts.
The store manager took one look at Yvette’s doctor’s note and said, “There’s no job here for you like that.”
Yvette claims that the store had accommodated employees with minor disabilities in the past. “One woman, she hurt her shoulder,” she says, angry tears filling her eyes. “They gave her a job re-shelving lighter items.” Yvette says she also offered to work at the cash register or in the office of a different branch, to no avail.
Eventually she was given meager disability payments for a portion of her pregnancy, and she spent the remainder on unpaid leave. Last month, Yvette left her job at the grocery chain.
Pregnant workers are technically protected by both the federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) and the sex and disability clauses of the New York Human Rights law. Unfortunately, these protections are rarely extended to low-income women.
“There’s a gap in protection under the law,” said Katharine Bodde, Policy Counsel at the New York Civil Liberties Union. “Courts have not interpreted the federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act to require employers to provide reasonable accommodations.”
Pregnant New Yorkers also have the option of filing a charge with the New York State Division of Human Rights but the process can take weeks or even months, by which time most women have already been forced to make accommodations or leave their jobs.
“If you’re pregnant and you want to find out if you can have a stool or an extra bathroom break, you don’t have three months to get that decision,” said Bakst.
For women in New York, though, all this may be about to change. The NY State legislature will vote on Governor Andrew Cuomo’s proposed Women’s Equality Agenda this month. While the reproductive health provisions of the legislation have received the most attention in the press, the full package is intended to directly improve life for low-income, working women, including those most likely to suffer from pregnancy discrimination.
If the law passes, employers in New York would be required to provide “a reasonable accommodation for pregnancy-related conditions unless doing so would cause an undue hardship on the employer.” These “reasonable accommodations” typically include extra bathroom breaks, a stool to sit on, or the ability to carry a water bottle around — benefits that would cost the employer little to nothing. California passed a similar law in 1999 and dramatically reduced the state’s pregnancy discrimination cases at a time when national numbers were increasing. Bakst and Bodde consider the law a change that’s great for women, employers, and an over-taxed state system.