Pregnancy Discrimination in the Workplace Is a Very Real Problem

"Pregnancy is not part of the uniform."
Publish date:
May 5, 2016
pregnancy, class war, Workplace Discrimination

The only thing worse than experiencing a difficult pregnancy is experiencing a difficult pregnancy and then being fired for it, which is what happened to Tiffany Kantrowitz. She alleges that Dolce and Gabbana on Saks Fifth Avenue fired her from her position selling makeup because she requested reasonable accommodations on the job — and if she prevails in the suit, D&G is going to be in big trouble, because pregnancy discrimination is illegal under federal law, with further protections in New York.

A large percentage of the population is capable of getting pregnant, and a fair percentage of them decide to take advantage of that fact. Many pregnant people want to stay in the workplace because they enjoy their jobs — or because they can't afford to take time off — and that's why we have anti-discrimination laws in place. As long as pregnant people are asking for reasonable accommodations, they cannot be fired purely on the grounds of pregnancy.

We need these kinds of protections not just because of cases like Kantrowitz'. Historically, retaliatory firing for pregnancy was incredibly common — and in some industries, employers even discriminated in advance, firing women once they got married, for example. Pregnant people could also be penalized in the workplace if they requested temporary reassignment to lighter duties or took time off from work — they would return to find that they were passed over for promotion and other career opportunities.

And, as this situation illustrates, pregnancy discrimination is still a problem.

According to Kantrowitz, when she started work at the store, she was bluntly told that "pregnancy is not part of the uniform" when she asked about how the company accommodated pregnancy in its strict appearance standards for staff. (Appearance standards are a whole different can of worms.) When she started experiencing headaches, dizziness, severe nausea, and other pregnancy complications, she wanted to keep working, so she did — right up until the day she used a stool briefly while talking to clients because she felt a little faint.

She was written up for that, and when she put in a formal request for accommodations, she says, she was offered a completely bizarre suggestion: Take rest breaks far from the sales floor in private rooms a flight of stairs away. In addition to having to struggle up and down stairs (which sort of defeats the point of resting), she also lost out on precious time on the floor, which is a huge problem in a commission-based industry.

Finally, she was fired — P&G claims that she was terminated for cause, but her suit, obviously, claims otherwise.

Federal and state law are quite strict on the subject of pregnancy discrimination

The Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA), passed in 1978, expressly prohibits retaliatory firings of this nature.

The Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) forbids discrimination based on pregnancy when it comes to any aspect of employment, including hiring, firing, pay, job assignments, promotions, layoff, training, fringe benefits, such as leave and health insurance, and any other term or condition of employment.

Moreover, under the Act, pregnancy is treated as a temporary disability if people experience medical complications — like, say, dizziness and fatigue. Like other disabilities, temporary disabilities are subject to "reasonable accommodations," such as requesting a stool to sit on, moving to a desk nearer to the bathroom, and leave to allow people to recover from childbirth. That said, it only covers companies with 15 or more employees — something that needs to change, because all pregnant people deserve these protections.

Pregnant people are also covered under the Family and Medical Leave Act, which allows people to take time off after welcoming a new member of the family. Moreover, New York has tough requirements to protect pregnant people from workplace discrimination, drawing upon the same legal language as the PDA, but taking it a step further. Any company with four or more employees must provide these accommodations.

If Kantrowitz proves her case, she's not going to be alone. Workplaces routinely deny accommodations to pregnant people, despite the fact that the law on the subject is quite clear. And it needs to be clearer — pregnancy protections should be extended to all employees in all circumstances, and they must be paired with more aggressive paid leave policies, something that has barely come up in this year's political cycle despite the fact that it's something of considerable interest and concern to many Americans.

A better landscape for new families must include paid leave protections

People need, and want, to be able to take leave around the time they give birth and for several weeks, or even months, afterward. That's not unreasonable to ask for, given that giving birth is a major life event, and people want time to bond with new babies. Infants are also highly dependent on their parents, and when people do return to work, they need to make arrangements for childcare, which can be quite expensive.

Netflix, among other companies, has just embraced the idea that allowing people to take much longer family leaves has clear benefits. People can take advantage of up to a year of paid time when they become new parents, as they can with several other Silicon Valley firms. It's something the tech industry can readily afford, and in fact needs to do, because the marketplace is so competitive that pregnant people, or those thinking about becoming pregnant, or those planning to build families in other ways, are going to be drawn to companies where they know that they will be able to take the time they need. A year (or more) of paid leave is appealing to extremely talented engineers and others vital to the operations of tech companies.

Smaller companies cannot necessarily bear the cost of providing paid leave this lengthy, which is understandable — and it's why some people are pushing for federally funded paid leave, as seen in parts of Scandinavia and other regions of the world. When paired with robust enforcement of pregnancy anti-discrimination laws, including educating people about their rights and holding employers accountable for violating the law, paid leave will make a huge difference in the quality of life, and productivity, of the American workforce.

People who want to be able to work while pregnant should be able to do so, enjoying the accommodations they need to be able to do so safely and comfortably. And people who do not want to work, or cannot because of pregnancy complications, should have the financial support that enables them to be secure while doing so, and should be assured that their jobs will be waiting for them when they get back. And once pregnant people have given birth, they shouldn't be unceremoniously shoved out the door of the delivery room and back behind their desks.

This is a culture that is generally unsupportive of families and children, despite constant claims from conservatives that they're dedicated to saving babies. If that's the case, they should be all over pregnancy discrimination suits like this one — and they are, but usually on the other side, railing against "big government" and people who "attack small businesses."

Photo: Ariane Hunter/Creative Commons