Here’s How The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act Can Erase The Fear Of Moms-To-Be Losing Their Jobs
"For years, pregnant workers at Walmart have worked in fear – fear of losing their jobs and fear for the health of their pregnancies. I, Girshriela Green, was one of them."
Last week, the U.S. House of Representatives took a significant step toward addressing pregnancy discrimination in the workplace and ensuring the health and economic security of pregnant and parenting workers by reintroducing the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, bipartisan legislation that would clarify and strengthen existing law. While pregnancy discrimination has been illegal for more than 40 years, pregnant working people are still discriminated against and denied reasonable accommodations – across the country – even at the nation’s largest private-sector employer.
For years, pregnant workers at Walmart have worked in fear – fear of losing their jobs and fear for the health of their pregnancies. I, Girshriela Green, was one of them. In 2013, I became pregnant while working as a Walmart associate in Los Angeles. I was terrified to tell my manager the news. I worried she would let me go at a time when my family needed that income the most.
That fear led me to action. I became involved with a group called OUR Walmart and began connecting with other associates across the country who had their own stories. Multiple workers shared their experiences of near miscarriages due to lack of accommodations, and one woman was forced to take unpaid leave, which left her struggling to pay the bills. What started as a network of mutual support grew into a campaign called “Respect the Bump.” We came together with our co-workers and allies to pressure Walmart to publicly commit to change their policy. Walmart responded by allowing accommodations for workers with high-risk pregnancies, an incremental win that we would build on years later.
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40 years earlier I, Judy Lichtman, worked in my role at the Women’s Legal Defense Fund to turn adversity into activism as well. In 1976, six male Supreme Court justices ruled in General Electric Company v. Gilbert that pregnancy discrimination was not illegal sex discrimination. Their terrible ruling was at odds with how many of us in the legal, judicial and policy community had interpreted the Civil Rights Act.
We reeled for a moment, and then we got to work. Just days after the Gilbert decision, civil rights and women’s organizations, disability rights groups, labor unions, and many more, united to form the Campaign to End Discrimination Against Pregnant Workers. After two years of organizing, drafting and advocating, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) landed on President Jimmy Carter’s desk. It was signed into law more than 40 years ago.
The law clarified that pregnancy discrimination is indeed sex discrimination – and it’s illegal. In addition, the law requires employers to treat pregnant workers the same way they would treat workers with temporary illnesses or disabilities.
Our individual experiences show that there are many ways to be an activist. Though the nature of our work is different, our cause is shared. Our experiences prove for millions of activists today that it’s possible to move from outrage to mobilization to meaningful change. The decades-long fight to secure rights for pregnant workers is a timely and significant example – full of challenges, setbacks and life-changing success. And that fight is not over.
Despite the PDA providing protections for millions of working people in the decades since its passage, the limitations of the law have also become clear. As illustrated by the experiences of Walmart employees, pregnancy discrimination persists in every state and industry, with devastating consequences. It persists within a culture that tolerates a gender wage gap, pervasive sexual harassment and a maternal health crisis that is especially devastating for Black women. Because of how the law has been interpreted, some employers still do not provide pregnant workers who need them with reasonable accommodations.
That is why the “Respect the Bump” campaign remains so important, just as the PDA coalition was decades earlier. Earlier this year, the campaign achieved another partial victory when Walmart expanded their pregnancy policy beyond high-risk pregnancies, to give all workers who are pregnant, breastfeeding, or recovering from childbirth access (though not a guarantee) to Temporary Alternative Duty. OUR Walmart has fought for other significant changes at the retailer, resulting in a new paid parental leave policy and higher wages. These activists – the majority of whom are women – are a testament to the power of organizing.
As all activists know, this work is a cycle of success and setback. Nationwide, Walmart store managers continue to break the law, and in September 2018, the company was sued by the EEOC for alleged pregnancy discrimination. While some leading employers are calling for change, too many other large companies and major retailers continue to deny their workers protections and reasonable accommodations that they need.
While women who come together to stand against injustice are powerful, we shouldn’t have to stand alone. Everyone can use their voice to condemn illegal and unethical actions by employers and pressure companies like Walmart to comply with existing laws and adopt stronger policies. We must advocate for Congress to prioritize and pass the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act to help prevent employers from forcing pregnant workers out of the labor force and require them to provide reasonable accommodations to pregnant workers who simply want to do their jobs.
And so we will continue to fight – across stores, across coalitions, and across the country – for the dignity and equality of all working people. In the fight against pregnancy discrimination, it’s clear that we all have a role to play.
Girshriela Green is an online to field organizer with the organization United for Respect and a founder of “Respect the Bump,” a network of pregnant moms and people who have had issues with pregnancy who work at Walmart and are demanding better treatment.
Judy Lichtman is senior adviser and past president of the National Partnership for Women & Families, a nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy group dedicated to promoting fairness in the workplace, reproductive health and rights, access to quality, affordable health care, and policies that help all people meet the dual demands of work and family.