Are we Doing Enough to Protect Pregnant Workers?

Over the weekend, the New York Times published an article recounting horrifying stories of pregnant women, most of them working in a Verizon Wireless warehouse on the East Coast, and what happened to them when their employer refused to honor their pregnancy-related work restrictions. Warning:  the article is hard to read and contains stories of miscarriage and still birth. Please do not read it if these things might be upsetting to you.  You can get the gist of the blog without it.

Instead, read this Times article from early summer, detailing the other shameful ways America’s biggest employers have treated their pregnant employees both during pregnancy and after returning from maternity leave.

The long and short of it? Pregnancy discrimination sucks. Sometimes, so does the law.

As if the stories themselves aren’t devastating enough, the first article accurately states that “refusing to accommodate pregnant women is often completely legal.”  Such is the case—sort of—in Iowa.  

The Iowa Civil Rights Act generally prohibits discrimination on the basis of age, race, creed, color, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, religion, or disability.  It also prohibits retaliation.  Separately, the Act prohibits employers from enacting policies or engaging in practices that exclude pregnant women from employment and requires employers to treat temporary disabilities related to pregnancy the same as any other temporary disabilities.  Specifically, “Written and unwritten employment policies and practices involving matters such as the commencement and duration of leave, the availability of extensions, the accrual of seniority, and other benefits and privileges, reinstatement, and payment under any health or temporary disability insurance or sick leave plan, formal or informal, shall be applied to a disability due to the employee’s pregnancy or giving birth, on the same terms and conditions as they are applied to other temporary disabilities.”

It is also illegal to fire an employee because she is pregnant.  This includes a woman who is fired shortly after she returns from maternity leave, even though she is no longer pregnant.  See Deboom v. Raining Rose, Inc., 772 N.W.2d 1, 7-8 (Iowa 2009).  This does not suck.

While the Iowa Supreme Court has acknowledged that the Iowa Civil Rights Act protects pregnant workers, the Court has also held that the Act “does not support a broad mandate according all pregnant employees special benefits.”  McQuistion v. City of Clinton, et al.  Ouch.

The Times’ weekend article prompted outcry on social media, from members of Congress to the former Executive Director of Planned Parenthood to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists to our state’s ACLU branch.  And it should have.  The federal law protecting pregnant workers is 40 years old and the Iowa Supreme Court has interpreted the Iowa Civil Rights Act fairly consistent with that antiquated federal law.

Women:  do not be discouraged.  All of you have the right to pregnancy-related job protections such as not being demoted because you are pregnant, not being given undesirable job assignments when you return from maternity leave, not being demoted during your pregnancy, and not being fired because you are pregnant or return from maternity leave.  The question of light duty work and work restrictions is a little fuzzier, but that should not discourage you from standing up for yourself and contacting a lawyer to see whether your rights have been violated.

We at Timmer & Judkins agree with the masses who believe it is time for a change in the law; time to provide real protections to pregnant workers; time to stop making women choose between work and family.  Until then, we are here for you and we will do everything we can to help you if you feel you’ve been discriminated against at work because of pregnancy or childbirth.