By Alesandra Dubin
December 03, 2014
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Pregnancy discrimination

Today, the Supreme Court will hear the pregnancy discrimination case of Peggy Young, who is fighting the United Parcel Service over its treatment of her when she was an employee who became pregnant with her daughter (now age 7). At that time, she provided a doctor's note requesting that her role be modified to avoid lifting anything heavier than 20 pounds. Instead of being reassigned, Young lost her job.

We asked Tom Spiggle, author of the book You're Pregnant? You're Fired: Protecting Mothers, Fathers, and Other Caregivers in the Workplace,  and an Arlington, Virginia-based lawyer specializing in workplace law, to help interpret what this case means for working families everywhere—and why pregnancy discrimination is still a problem we're talking about.

What could it mean for pregnant working women if the court decides against Young?

Tom Spiggle: It would mean that the only federal law on pregnancy discrimination will not protect a woman if she needs even a small change at work to help her keep working. For instance, need to keep a bottle of water with you because you have a pregnancy-related bladder infection? You could legally get fired if the company doesn't like it. A pregnant woman in Young's situation might be protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act, but only if she qualified as disabled under the Act.

Why is there (still) bias against pregnant women in the workforce?

TS: Although women have made inroads into senior management, high-level executive positions tend to be populated by men, most of whom can afford to have a spouse stay home or to hire full-time childcare. Most of these folks don't wake up in the morning, look in the mirror and say, "I'm going to discriminate against a pregnant woman today." But I do think most are far enough removed from the realities of working women that they don't think about how corporate policies can affect pregnant employees. And there still is a prevalent view among many, in the leadership position and otherwise, that pregnancy is a choice so the company should not be "punished" for a woman's "choice" to have a family. Finally, for years companies got away with pregnancy discrimination because women often chose to leave the workforce rather than stay in an unwelcome work environment. When the glass ceiling was low, and families could make it on one income, women just left a job rather than fight a pregnancy discrimination case. With women making it higher up the workplace food chain and families not able to get by on one income, the stakes are higher so more women are, either by choice or necessity, fighting back.

What's the big deal with making some accommodations to keep a valuable employee?

TS: Frankly, it isn't a big deal. Note that UPS reversed its own policy and now voluntarily accommodates pregnant workers to allow them to keep working. There have been significant improvements in opportunities for pregnant women in white-collar positions because companies are (sometimes slowly) waking up to the reality that it makes little sense to devote thousands of dollars to train a female employee, only to lose that investment because your company makes it impossible to work and have children. Of course, that's not to say women in these positions don't experience discrimination. It still happens. But some of the worst stories occur in low-wage occupations—food service, retail—where replacing an employee is not costly. Some companies would prefer to fire a woman than accommodate her, even if the actual cost to do so is low, because they can easily replace her.

Can you give any other examples of companies that have made positive policy changes for pregnant employees, either on their own or in anticipation of this case?

TS: Well, UPS for one has reversed the very policy that got it in hot water in this case and now at least provides light-duty assignments for pregnant women with lifting restrictions. And there are many companies that recognize the value in allowing a pregnant worker to continue to work as long as she is able. Hewlett-Packard, for instance, is known to be such a company, doing things like providing paid maternity and paternity leave. Patagonia is a standout example that provides flexible work schedules and even has an on-site childcare facility. The fact that Patagonia has experienced explosive growth puts the lie to the notion that it somehow harms a company when it recognizes the value of pregnant employees.

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