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Stop hanging pregnant workers out to dry

Accommodation in the workplace should be the norm, not the exception

November 28, 2014 2:00AM ET

Rep. Tammy Duckworth stands out in the U.S. Congress for three reasons: She has a disability, a uterus and a record of active military service in a recent war. She’s also the first Asian-American woman elected to Congress from Illinois.

This month she is in the news because her request to vote by proxy in the upcoming House Democratic caucus leadership and committee member elections was denied. Duckworth, who lost her legs serving in Iraq, was pregnant — in her third trimester. Because her doctor advised her not to travel at this late stage in her pregnancy, she appealed to her fellow Democrats to make a one-time exception to the caucus’ ban on proxy voting.

No dice, said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and others. Pelosi can’t understand what all the fuss is about, given that she has urged Duckworth to savor the “most glorious experience” of becoming a mother. (Duckworth gave birth to a girl last week.)

Duckworth’s request was likely denied for petty political reasons. Duckworth supports Rep. Frank Pallone for a top spot on the Energy and Commerce Committee, and Pelosi backs Pallone’s opponent. Regardless of Pelosi’s true motives, her reasoning couldn’t be clearer: Motherhood may be a most glorious experience, but pregnancy is a voluntary inconvenience for which women should expect no accommodation.

For many pregnant women, Duckworth’s experience is a high-level, less physically taxing version of a depressingly familiar story. Six years ago Peggy Young, a former UPS employee, sued the company for denying her request for less strenuous work during her pregnancy. Instead of being granted accommodation, she was forced to take extended unpaid leave and lost her health insurance. Her case has undergone a number of appeals and is on its way to the Supreme Court (which may well issue a ruling with disastrous consequences for pregnant women).

At the time of Young’s original lawsuit, UPS classified pregnancy as an “off-the-job injury,” akin to hurting one’s back at home. Fascinatingly, the company had no problem permitting employees to switch jobs if they lost their commercial driver’s license because of a drunk-driving conviction. Careening around smashed in your off hours? No worries! Baby on the way? That’s your problem.

Earlier this year Bene’t Holmes, a 25-year-old single mother and Walmart employee who was then four months pregnant, asked her manager for job duties that were less physically demanding. A doctor had recommended she be put on light duty. Her request was denied. The next day she had a miscarriage at work. Holmes was denied a leave of absence to recover from the miscarriage and threatened with disciplinary action when she missed work. 

I can’t respect a process that forces a pregnant woman to choose between doing her job and following her doctor’s orders.

In many workplaces, employees such as Young and Holmes are expected to either take unpaid leave or keep doing what they normally do, no matter how dangerous or physically demanding it is. Many pregnant workers are denied water bottles, stools and extra bathroom breaks.

The Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 was intended to prevent pregnant workers from being fired when their bosses discovered their condition. But courts have interpreted it in a variety of ways. Many Americans know by now that you’re not allowed to ask an employee whether she’s pregnant or if or when she plans to become pregnant. But there’s still a lot of confusion about whether employers are obligated to accommodate women if they are — and if so, what form that accommodation should take.

Thanks to legislation and legal action or threats of legal action, some stories of pregnant women at work have happy — or at least nondisastrous — endings. Sonica Smith, a sales associate at the clothing store Zara, was able to negotiate regular breaks to rest and use the bathroom during her pregnancy. Floralba Fernandez Espinal was reinstated after being forced out of her thrift store job.

Angelica Valencia, a 39-year-old pregnant woman who was forced out of her job in August by managers who refused to honor her doctor’s recommendation that she not work overtime, was recently offered her job back. Only someone badly in need of a job would return to a company that treated her so poorly. Forty-two million women in this country live in or near poverty. They need their jobs.

In October, UPS announced a policy change for its pregnant workers: Effective Jan. 1, the company will offer temporary light duty to pregnant workers as well as to those injured on the job. (Its current policy is to accommodate the latter but not the former.) The change is too late to help Young.

The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act currently before Congress would require employers to provide reasonable accommodations to pregnant workers who need them unless doing so would impose an undue hardship on the business — a standard that applies to workers with disabilities. But it faces a Congress that passes laws about as often as the Los Angeles Clippers win basketball games. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission announced tougher rules designed to protect pregnant workers in July, but many women remain unaware of their rights and lack the resources to fight for them.

As for Duckworth, she is either resigned to being disenfranchised or smart enough to pretend she is. “The caucus chose not to allow me to vote via proxy,” she said in a statement. “I respect the process and very much appreciated my colleagues who made sure my request was considered.”

I can’t respect a process that forces a pregnant woman to choose between doing her job and following her doctor’s orders, especially when accommodation is as simple as granting the right to a proxy vote.

Pregnancy is risky, life altering, physically demanding and potentially rewarding. In a free and equal society, women who choose to undertake it would be treated like soldiers, not broken-down cars.

It’s time to can the platitudes about the glories of motherhood and provide pregnant women with the practical support they need and deserve. Basic decency demands it.

Raina Lipsitz writes about feminism, politics and pop culture. Her work has appeared in TheAtlantic.com, Kirkus Reviews, McSweeney’s, Nerve.com, Ploughshares, Salon.com and xoJane, among others. 

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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