Report: Pregnant women often penalized by employers

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Namwinga Pope* was fired from her job two weeks before her due date. She believes it’s because she was pregnant. She had been on the job for about six months, before receiving this sudden blow.

“They tried to create a paper trail” proving job negligence she explains, speaking of the tiny dance company where she once worked as a development director. The executive director and human resources liaison “started that immediately after I told them I was pregnant,” Pope told theGrio.

While motherhood has been linked to stunted careers and salaries, a new report— It Shouldn’t Be a Heavy Lift:  Fair Treatment for Pregnant Workers — shows expecting mothers regularly experience outright discrimination at the hands of their employers. The report is one of many with similar findings of pregnant women being frequently fired, forced to quit, or being forced to suffer hostile work environments.

Women’s stories of discrimination

The report details a Maryland trucker who felt forced to go on unpaid leave — losing her health insurance in the process — because her employer refused her request for help with occasional heavy lifting.  Meanwhile, truck drivers with disabilities, injuries, or who had lost their commercial driver’s licenses, were accommodated.

Similarly, a Minnesota mailwoman used all her paid time off because her boss wouldn’t let her work inside on very hot days — although employees who had on-the-job injuries had that option.

Pope says she didn’t make any formal requests, and was given no job task exceptions, related to her pregnancy. Aside from leaving work two hours early for her once-a-week ob-gyn appointments, and taking her full lunch hour once in a while to run errands or go to the gym, she added, “I barely went out to lunch.”

Pope chose to suffer any difficulties with her pregnancy in silence, drinking coffee to combat extreme exhaustion, even though caffeine is a no-no according to some obstetricians. “I wouldn’t have done that, if I wasn’t trying to make myself function at work,” she said.

She even assured her boss she would take a shorter maternity leave if need be, but didn’t get a response.

Discrimination during pregnancy prevalent

“Women make up almost half of the labor force, but all too often they are forced to make an impossible choice,” National Women’s Law Center (NWLC) vice president Emily Martin told theGrio. “Risk their own health and pregnancy to keep a job, or lose their income at the moment they can least afford it.”

What bothered Pope most was what she described as her boss’ “circumspect” behavior and the tone it created in the office. When she shared her pregnancy news, her boss said, “You should have told us,” adding, “We’re a really trusting organization,” Pope stated.

“Nobody was like ‘Congratulations’ after I told her, and nobody was talking to me about the pregnancy,” the new mother remembered. “It was only one employee. She had a daughter who was six years old and she would talk to me about pregnancy stuff.”

Later, Pope suspected she would be fired when she heard her boss whispering about her in the bathroom.

Did workplace stress cause an early delivery?

The stress might have led to the baby’s arrival two weeks early.

Pope was in tears the Thursday before she delivered. Her “midwife, she sees that I’m crying and she’s monitoring my blood pressure,” Pope said. The midwife told her, “If this doesn’t go down, I’m going to have to admit you to the hospital.”

But Pope’s stress was too great. “So, I’m in there just trying to get it down, and it just wouldn’t.”

Two years later, Pope’s son prattles on in conversation with his mother as she reflects on this experience. “[Initially], I got a good vibe from the [executive director],” she mused, describing her former boss as “really down to earth.”

Believing the common bond of motherhood would lead to smooth relationships, when Pope entered her work environment — where the executive director had a teen and a pre-teen — she never would have thought her pregnancy would be a cause for termination.

Legal protections for the pregnant: Coming soon?

The new report calls for more than just good intentions to combat this trend. It Shouldn’t Be a Heavy Lift proposes that federal agencies, like the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, provide guidance on employers’ legal obligation to accommodate pregnant workers — and calls for the passage of the federal Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, which would make employers give their pregnant employees the same work exceptions they already give workers with disabilities.

The Act would also expand state law protections for pregnant workers.

NWLC’s Martin insists, “There’s no reason for pregnancy to be a job-buster.”

*Name has been changed to protect subject’s privacy

Nana Ekua Brew-Hammond is the author of the novel Powder Necklace‘ and founder of the blog People Who Write. Follow her on Twitter @nanaekua.