"We Aren't Paying You To Pee": Pregnancy and Workplace Discrimination

One in five discrimination complaints filed by cis women are pregnancy-related, and they usually involve retaliatory firing.

Dec 6, 2012 at 3:30pm | Leave a comment

People, there are some days when I wake up and I just cannot handle this country. The sheer bizarre hypocrisy just becomes overwhelming and I want to crawl into a hole and die. Or dig my way through to Sweden. I’m not sure which.

Today’s dose of "WTF, America?!” comes from an article about a woman filing a pregnancy discrimination suit in federal court, claiming her employer harassed her, and then fired her, because she had a high-risk pregnancy. The two bits of her complaint that really stand out are her employer’s generous offer of “a larger trashcan” so she could puke at her desk rather than having to take time to go to the bathroom, and the plaintiff being told that she wasn’t paid to pee when she needed frequent bathroom breaks due to complications from her pregnancy. And due to, you know, the fact that pregnant bladders are kind of under some strain.

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Photo credit: Nils Geylen.

KNOCKED UP? TOO BAD

Over 30 years ago, the United States passed the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, amending the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to include pregnant women. The law “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.”

Yet, one in five discrimination complaints filed by cis women are pregnancy-related, and they usually involve retaliatory firing. Under the law, pregnant women must be allowed to work as long as they are able, and must be provided with “reasonable accommodations” (a larger trashcan is not a reasonable accommodation, FYI) if necessary. When and if they need to take pregnancy-related leave, it must be treated like disability leave, which means they can’t legally be penalized for it.

Of course, that’s just what the law says, not how things work in the real world. For one thing, few women have access to paid maternity leave and other benefits that might benefit them and their babies, which forces them to work longer than they might want to. They’re also pressured into working because they fear for losing their jobs, which is a legitimate fear, given that pregnant women often face dismissal, wage cuts, and other punishments even though they’re not legally supposed to.

Unsurprisingly, low-wage workers are most vulnerable to pregnancy discrimination. They’re least able to fight it, and they’re the most in need of stable income to support themselves and their families. Just disclosing a pregnancy can be as good as signing your own pink slip at some companies, despite illegality. Knowing that the law is on your side is cold comfort when you’re knocked up with no income coming in.

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Photo credit: Edgar Holguin

THE FETUS FETISH

This country has a bizarre fetish for the fetus as an abstract entity; look at the reams and reams of print dedicated to the “sanctity of life” and the importance of “saving the children.” Yet, the supposedly pro-life stance on fetuses doesn’t regard mothers at all -- not just in the sense of refusing to accept that pregnancy can carry health risks and involves a loss of autonomy for the mother, but also in the sense of refusing to acknowledge that what happens to mothers has an effect on fetuses.

If a woman is unemployed, harassed or discriminated against because of her pregnancy, it’s going to make it harder for her to safely carry the pregnancy to term. Which means that “pro-life” people really ought to be interested in pregnancy discrimination -- to protect the fetus, you know. For that matter, they should be concerned about the lack of maternity leave, prenatal care, and other benefits, an they should be worried about the shocking neonatal mortality rate in the US.

We won’t even get into the urgent and clear need for benefits that support children and families, like food assistance, access to good education, housing assistance, and other help for people who can’t survive on their own. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves; these are post-fetuses.

I just can’t handle the rampant hypocrisy of a nation where “life” is supposedly highly valued, while pregnant women, actual living children, and families are treated like garbage. For women who want to be pregnant, being able to announce a pregnancy must be really exciting, and the thought that you should conceal it to protect your job, or bend over backwards to accommodate your employer, is chilling. Pregnant women have a right to be in the workplace just like everyone else, and they have the right to accommodations to help them succeed in the workplace.

Being pregnant shouldn’t be grounds for an open season on harassment, or for dismissal, yet it is. And I don’t see any supposedly pro-life organizations taking up this fight, even though it supposedly dovetails with their interest in protecting the sacred fetus.