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Joan C. Williams's picture

In the 1970s, after it became illegal to discriminate based on race, some employers responded by imposing high school education requirements for blue-collar jobs. Today, employers who want to keep women out of “men’s jobs” do something similar: they wait until workers get pregnant, and then deny them “light duty,” like desk work for a police officer, for example, or a transfer from the warehouse to the phone bank, making them unable to perform their jobs.

Discrimination against pregnant women is finally beginning to get the national attention it deserves. Last week, I and others urged the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to issue guidance to clarify the rights of pregnant women at work. Such guidance is sorely needed. An op-ed by Dina Bakst published a few weeks ago in the New York Times noted that “thousands of pregnant women are pushed out of jobs that they are perfectly capable of performing — either put on unpaid leave or simply fired — when they request an accommodation to help maintain a healthy pregnancy.” The stories from some of the growing number of cases that have been filed in the last several years speak for themselves.

In a 2006 Texas case, an employer threw up his hands and said “What are we going to do now?” when he found out Deanna Stansfield was pregnant. At O’Reilly Auto, where she worked, women were encouraged to get men’s help when lifting heavy objects. But once she announced her pregnancy, Deanna was told she could no longer seek such help. When she brought in a note from her doctor limiting her lifting to 20 pounds, her employer first asked her what weight he had told her she would need to be able to lift to keep her job, and then, after some indecision, decided that she would have to lift 50 pounds.

Sometimes employers are more subtle. In a 2004 suit, Lochren v. Suffolk, a police department routinely staffed desk and other light duty positions with officers who could not perform “full police duties.” The department grandfathered in 36 male officers who had been on light duty for years. But light duty was not available for pregnant women. They were given the option of going on leave or remaining on patrol without bulletproof vests and gun belts—the department did not provide either in sizes suitable for late-term pregnant women.

Some employers insist on limiting pregnant employees to light duty even when the employee herself insists she is ready, willing, and able to do her regular job. An example is a 1999 Kansas case, where a firefighter was promptly removed from her job after she announced her pregnancy, and her request for a return to full duty was ignored. This kind of discrimination was declared illegal in the 1970s. Yet “one of the biggest complaints from female sworn officers is that when they notify their department that they are pregnant, they are removed from their position,” according to a report by the National Center For Women and Policing titled “Recruiting and Retaining Women.”

At the Center for WorkLife Law, we hear from women denied light duty, both on our hotline and in our database, which has over one hundred cases involving denial of light duty. Often employers force women onto leave very early in their pregnancies. Then all the employer has to do is to wait until her three-month leave period is up and fire her for job abandonment.

Why do pregnant women need light duty? Women’s joints soften during their pregnancies, making them more susceptible to back injuries. Light duty is vital for some women. Other women are ordered onto light duty by overly cautious doctors who may well be worried about potential malpractice suits if anything goes wrong with a pregnancy. Doctors need to recognize that ordering a pregnancy-based work restriction can jeopardize a mother’s access to pre-natal health care and her ability to feed and house her baby. Of course doctors should order restrictions when they are necessary, but doctors need to think carefully about what’s necessary and never, never “recommend” a restriction without ordering it. That’s a recipe for job loss. Doctors need to remember that 41% of all children, 53% of children born to women under 30, and, and 73% of children born to black women are born out of wedlock. Many, many pregnant blue-collar women do not have a partner to support them. Even if they do, many, many blue-collar families need both parents’ jobs to pay the bills.

In a 1999 case, the New York City Transit Authority offered light duty to an officer who had been injured while scuba diving, another who had been injured while jogging, a third who was recovering from foot surgery, and a fourth who had hurt his hamstring—but denied light duty to an officer who was pregnant. In a 2011 case involving the United Parcel Service, the employer gave light duty to male employees who had lost their licenses due to drunk driving—but not to pregnant women.

Do you believe these things still happen today? Equality for mothers is still a heavy lift.

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