Amy Crosby, 30, was 23 weeks pregnant when her doctor told her she needed to quit all heavy lifting until she delivered. The pregnancy was exacerbating her carpal tunnel syndrome. “I couldn’t sleep at night because my arm and my hand were numb,” she told BuzzFeed. But, she said, her employers at Tallahassee Memorial Hospital, where she worked as a cleaner, told her she couldn’t work with a lifting restriction. She’d have to go on unpaid leave, and said she’s now slated to be fired — the month before her baby is born.
Crosby isn’t alone. Under current law, employers who refuse to make accommodations for pregnant women that they would make for workers with disabilities are guilty of discrimination. But according to Emily Martin of the National Women’s Law Center, which is filing a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on Crosby’s behalf, employers still commonly fire pregnant women rather than providing such accommodations. “We don’t have numbers,” she told BuzzFeed, “but looking at published cases, it seems to be a story that’s repeated again and again.”
According to working-family advocacy group A Better Balance [PDF], mail carrier Diana Tiegland was put on heat restriction during her pregnancy, but the U.S. Postal Service allegedly denied her permission to work inside on very hot days, even though workers with work-related injuries were allowed to do so. The group Equal Rights Advocates worked with a security worker who was denied a stool to sit on during her pregnancy. And a recent lawsuit against pharmaceutical company Bayer alleges that multiple women were discriminated against because of their pregnancies, including one woman who says she was told, “There are babies everywhere. I need to stop hiring women of reproductive age.”
This type of discrimination may be especially common in low-wage jobs. Joan C. Williams, director of the Center for WorkLife Law at UC Hastings, said, “The openness of pregnancy discrimination in low-income contexts is just unbelievable. People tell their employers they’re pregnant and they’re fired 15 minutes later. I assume that employers know that’s illegal, and for some reason that really doesn’t matter to them. It is breathtaking how open it is.”
Part of the reason may be prejudice: Martin said, “You see lots of variations on the theme of employers assuming that women who are pregnant or are mothers are less committed to their work or less valuable as workers.”
Frequently this is when women can least afford to be fired — Crosby feels lucky that her fiancé Tom (who preferred his last name not be used) still brings in an income, but they haven’t been able to afford supplies for the new baby, and they’ve had to get government aid. “We don’t want to go on government assistance,” she said. “We’ve always been able to pay for everything on our own.”
Crosby said she and Tom went to Burger King soon after she was put on leave. She noticed they were hiring. So she asked an employee there, “Would you hire me at 23 weeks pregnant, and he said no. And I said why, and he said it’s too much of a liability.” Crosby said the whole situation “makes you feel kind of hopeless. What are we supposed to do? I can’t even get a job at Burger King.”
Crosby says it was Tom’s research into the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that showed her she could do something about her situation. He said, “I grew up with my mom being a single mom, and I watched her for my entire life be patronized because she’s a woman.” He said when he saw the same thing happen to his fiancée, he realized, “Now as an adult I can make a difference.”
“I would never have thought I had a legal stand,” Crosby said, “but now I know I have rights.” Her decision to take her case to the EEOC may be increasingly common. Williams said women may be more aware of their employment rights than before: “Women have switched this from the ‘that’s life’ box to the ‘that’s discrimination’ box.”
Tallahassee Memorial HealthCare, which operates the hospital, said in a statement to BuzzFeed that Crosby provided conflicting letters about her lifting restriction from her ob-gyn and chiropractor, and the hospital asked “that the NWLC provide documentation from her primary care physician that addressed the discrepancy. The NWLC chose to ignore this request and proceeded to file a complaint against Tallahassee Memorial.” Martin counters, “While TMH noted that the OB’s letter imposed a 20-pound lifting restriction and the chiropractor letter imposed a 25-pound lifting restriction, no request for a third letter by a primary care physician was ever made.” The hospital would not comment directly on whether Crosby was scheduled to be terminated in April, saying only, “Tallahassee Memorial hopes that the NWLC will reconsider the course it has chosen and work with TMH to ensure that all employees are treated fairly and safely under the law.”
The NWLC believes Crosby has a case under current law. But Martin also said courts have sometimes been unhelpful in enforcing what the NWLC believes are existing legal protections for pregnant women. She’s seen courts rule that “an employer can fire somebody because she needs to carry a water bottle during her pregnancy.”
For that reason, the NWLC supports the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, which would make protections for pregnant women more explicit. Martin said the act “would make unmistakably clear that employers have to accommodate limitations arising out of pregnancy just like they accommodate limitations arising out of disability.” The Act was introduced in Congress last year but stalled in committee — the NWLC hopes it will be reintroduced.
In the meantime, Crosby would like her case to inspire other women to come forward: “They probably think just like how I did: We’re [in] a low-paid job, and who’s gonna listen? […] I want them to know that they have to stand up and make a change.”