A joint report from the National Women's Law Center and A Better Balance, an organization that assists low-income working New Yorkers with pregnancy discrimination, caregiver discrimination, pay discrimination, and other related issues, brought to light a disturbing apparent trend: around the United States, women are routinely fired or forced to take unpaid leave when they become pregnant.
Three-quarters of the women entering the workforce today will be pregnant and employed at some point during their careers, according to the report. And New York, it turns out, is one of 42 states that does not provide accommodations to pregnant workers.
“Women make up almost half of the labor force, but all too often they are forced to make an impossible choice: risk their own health and pregnancy to keep a job or lose their income at the moment they can least afford it," said NWLC Vice President and General Counsel Emily Martin.
"Pregnant workers are ready, willing and able to continue working but they are often forced out by employers who refuse to make minor accommodations," she added.
This problem mostly affects women in low-paid or non-traditional jobs, the report noted. While workers with similar symptoms stemming from a disability, illness or injury can be accommodated—allowed to drink water on the job, for example, or sit instead of stand—pregnant women and new mothers are often denied those same concessions.
A cashier at a Dollar Tree store on Long Island recalls not being allowed to sit on a stool, although workers in other Dollar Tree stores did. Instead, she was required to stand on her feet for eight to ten hours at a stretch, which landed her in the emergency room several times.
Another New Yorker described in the report, Yvette, worked at a supermarket in New York City for 11 years. When she first became pregnant in 2005, she didn't ask for accommodations out of fear that she would lose her job, which involved lifting heavy objects.
"I was worried the whole time about my health and my baby's health," she said.
She ultimately gave birth to a healthy baby girl. But when she became pregnant again in 2007, she asked her manager if she could stay away from heavy lifting.
"He actually responded by giving me more heavy lifting to do," Yvette recalled. "I think he hoped I would quit."
Yvette miscarried. She went on to suffer a series of miscarriages and eventually found out she had a blood clotting disorder.
She received treatment for the clotting disorder when she became pregnant again in 2010, and her doctor sent her boss a note with a lifting restriction and an advisory that she should take breaks and not travel stairs too often.
Her boss told her there was no work for her in the supermarket if she had those limitations.
But Yvette said that wasn't true—she could have worked in the deli. A woman who had been working as a cashier and had a shoulder problem was reassigned to restocking items on the floor, as an accommodation.
"I wanted to get a transfer too and continue working," Yvette said.
But Yvette was fired.
Her union got her 26 weeks of disability pay and eventually arranged for her to get her job back after her baby was born. But the disability payments were just a fraction of her salary, and the 26 weeks were up the month before her due date. She lost her health insurance, and for the last month of her pregnancy and the first three months of her newborn's life, she was on Medicaid and she and her children were living off of food stamps and her savings. By the time she returned to work three months after giving birth, her savings had entirely run out.
Yvette is now in search of a new job, as she had to leave her supermarket job because of childcare issues.
But there may be a light at the end of the tunnel for workers like Yvette: the New York State Assembly passed the Women’s Equality Act today, a landmark move for women's rights in the Empire State.
The act contains a provision that would ensure accommodations for pregnancy- or childbirth-related issues by establishing that pregnant workers and new mothers are covered by the same protections as disabled workers under the New York State Human Rights Law.
The legislation will now go to the State Senate for a vote.
"The Assembly had the courage to stand up on behalf of women of New York, and now the Senate must do the same," Governor Andrew Cuomo said.
Follow Danielle Tcholakian on Twitter @danielleiat