Fired for Carrying a Water Bottle, and Other Reasons We Need the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act

Thanks to the advancements of the Women’s Rights Movement back in the day, we are more in control of our life choices and have more opportunities than ever. It’s safe to say that American women as a whole don’t face arranged marriages, that the chance of a higher education is more within reach than when our grandmothers were our age, that we have the control of deciding when if at all to start a family, and that we can, indeed, work and have a family. Umm, hold that last thought.

Women can be fired for, essentially, being pregnant. And courts have used the language of existing laws, namely the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978, to deny pregnant women rights. It’s true. But how does something like this happen? Worse yet: Why are these employers getting away with this?

When a Walmart employee began to carry a water bottle around with her while working at the recommendation of her doctor to make sure she was getting enough water during her pregnancy and to stave off recurring bladder infections, she was fired. Carrying water bottles throughout the store isn’t allowed for “non-cashier” employees and goes against company policy. Thus, Walmart fired her on grounds of “insubordination.”

It sounds astonishing, and it is. But because current law dictates that pregnant women “shall be treated the same for all employment-related purposes … and nothing in section 703(h) of this title shall be interpreted to permit otherwise,” the courts are forced to side with employers. In plain language: Pregnant women cannot legally be treated any differently in the workplace than their non-pregnant coworkers. That includes carrying water bottles.

Which clearly means the language needs to change.

When the law was written in 1978, it’s unlikely that anyone ever intended it to be used as the grounds for firing pregnant women (and this Walmart employee is not the only one). It was unlikely that anyone would have foresaw major companies manipulating the language of what was supposed to be a law to protect pregnant workers. But, sadly, today more than ever, big businesses trump the needs of the people. And once again, women are left fighting for their rights. Thanks to the disgraceful and current “war on women,” cases like the one against Walmart are being used as forces for change.

Today, the House of Representatives, introduced the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (PWFA), which aims to level the playing field in the workplace by recognizing that accommodations should be made when medically necessary for pregnant women. For instance, under the newly introduced law, that Walmart employee whose doctor recommended she drink more water but whose employer prohibited “non-cashiers” from carrying a water bottle, would be placed on cashier duties for the duration of her pregnancy. Simple enough, right? We’re not asking for the world here, and ideally employers would make these adjustments on their own. Many do, in fact, recognize the special circumstances that can arise from pregnancy. Sure, many women can continue their jobs during their pregnancies without any issues. But for those who can’t, and for those who need basic accommodations we’re not talking about disability leave for major issues here employers should meet these needs to the best of their abilities.

That’s what this new law strives to do. And by creating “reasonable accommodations,” the bill also keeps in mind the needs of businesses. No employer is expected to offer the break-room to pregnant workers for eight hours a day, but neither is any pregnant woman expecting them to. Creating these reasonable accommodations is a small task to ask of employers, but it’s a huge measure for pregnant workers who shouldn’t be forced to choose between their jobs and the health of their pregnancy. And the more pregnant women there are working, the less pregnant women there are on public assistance, which, in turn, saves you, the taxpayer, money.

If you’d like to see this bill move forward and want to help protect pregnant women’s rights, visit the National Women’s Law Center here.

Source: District Court Case Against Walmart

Source: U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission

Photo: Trocaire

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