As a pregnant Walmart associate in Los Angeles, Girshriela Green remembers trying to hide her pregnancy from supervisors to avoid being “pushed out of work.”
“They rarely give you accommodations, and if they can’t find you a light-duty accommodation,” you could be out of a job, she told Bloomberg Law.
Green, whose position was eliminated in 2012 with the Bentonville, Ark.-based company, recalled other pregnant workers being forced to lift heavy boxes, work with toxic chemicals in photo departments, and stand at cash registers without bathroom breaks. The California resident started the “Respect the Bump” campaign with other pregnant
The retail industry is no stranger to litigation over the issue of putting pregnant workers at risk on the job. Seven such lawsuits have been filed this month, and four of them were against retailers. Of 54 cases filed this year, retailers were at the top of the list with 14, including two against Walmart.
But Walmart is by no means the only retailer facing such litigation. The ones filed this month include a pregnant worker at Target Corp. and one at Burlington Coat Factory alleging they were discriminated against because of their pregnancies when they were denied modifications to their jobs.
In both instances, the workers say they were made to lift boxes heavier than recommended by federal authorities and stand for long stretches, putting themselves and their babies at risk.
“We see a lot of issues arising with employers refusing to make pregnancy accommodations for women in physically demanding, low-wage jobs,” such as retail, Emily Martin, vice president of education and workplace justice at the National Women’s Law Center, told Bloomberg Law. There can be a workplace culture “where the needs of workers come last and employers tend to see the women in those jobs as disposable and interchangeable.”
Walmart’s pregnancy policy has been updated several times in the past several years, Randy Hargrove, a spokesman for the company, told Bloomberg Law. “Our policies have always fully met or exceeded both state and federal law.” The company disputes Green’s account.
Danielle Schumann, a spokeswoman for
Burlington Coat Factory didn’t provide comment after several requests from Bloomberg Law.
‘People Think This Doesn’t Happen’
Before Congress passed the Pregnancy Discrimination Act in 1978, employers simply would fire women when they became pregnant, Samuel Bagenstos, a law professor at the University of Michigan, told Bloomberg Law.
Even after, employers continued to refuse to give pregnant workers the same accommodations they gave injured workers, he said.
In 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that companies that accommodate injured workers also must do so for pregnant workers. That decision, Young v. United Parcel Service, “made a big change in a lot of employers’ practices,” said Bagenstos, who represented plaintiff Peggy Young.
A Bloomberg Law analysis of federal court cases filed by pregnant workers alleging hazardous working conditions across industries shows filings are on the rise and have almost doubled since 2015.
Young wanted to continue to work for
Young’s lawsuit has been cited in more than 226 cases since the decision was handed down, a Bloomberg Law analysis shows.
“It’s 2018, and a lot of people think this doesn’t happen, and it happens all the time,” Young told Bloomberg Law.
Lifting weights above 20 pounds is just one of several risk factors pregnant women can encounter in the workplace.
“We know that the developing fetus is extremely susceptible to environmental chemicals and environmental stressors,” Dr. Linda Birnbaum, director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences at the National Institutes of Health, told Bloomberg Law.
Young’s victory means that now, employers face “a sharp potential rise in legal liability,”
Walmart last year updated its national accommodation policy, including providing temporary alternative duty as a possible reasonable accommodation for pregnant associates, Hargrove said.
Green said she hopes retail companies will add more women to executive boards, as women might better understand the nuanced safety issues women face.
“That would have a huge effect,” she said. Three out of Walmart’s 11 board members are women, four of Target’s 11 board members are women, and three of Burlington Coat Factory’s nine members are women.
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(Updated with additional comments from Walmart.)