A recent New York Times investigation shed light on pregnancy discrimination in the American workplace. And the most vulnerable women may be those who work in factories or warehouses requiring daily physical demands. Although further research is required, some studies have shown the potential for an increased risk of miscarriage when lifting 200-400 lbs per day while pregnant. Other studies have found associations between early pregnancy loss and working night shifts as well as preterm delivery and greater than three hours of standing or walking per day, shift work, or work weeks greater than 40 hours.
According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, it should be safe for a women with an uncomplicated pregnancy to work throughout most of her pregnancy. However, women whose jobs require more than average physical demands, include possible exposure to toxins, or increase the possibility of falling or injury may require work accommodations to minimize their risk of harm. Women with complicated pregnancies such as pregnant women with gestational diabetes may also require additional accommodations. Physically demanding work may include heavy lifting, repetition, and prolonged standing or sitting. The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health provides guidance on recommended weight limits that pregnant women can lift based on height of the lift, distance of the lift from the body, duration of lifting, and gestation (< 20 weeks or > 20 weeks).
There are several federal laws related to pregnancy and discrimination, but they fail to guarantee accommodations for every pregnant woman. Some states have passed laws that are stricter than current federal regulations. The U.S. Department of Labor provides an overview of state laws regarding pregnancy discrimination, accommodation, and breastfeeding rights in the workplace. Federal laws include the following: the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, the Americans With Disabilities Act, the Affordable Care Act- Break Time for Mothers Law, and the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). The Pregnancy Discrimination Act is an older law that prevents companies with greater than 15 employees from discriminating against pregnant women during the hiring process and prevents forced leave because of pregnancy. However, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act as well as the Americans With Disabilities Act fall short by only requiring employers to provide “reasonable accommodations” if others workers are allowed the same accommodations and the accommodations do not cause “undue hardship” to the employer. As the New York Times investigation points out, many physically demanding factory and warehouse jobs fail to provide accommodations or breaks for even regular employees, much less pregnant employees. Obstetricians and gynecologists can provide notes to employers requesting accommodations for their pregnant patients; however, there is no guarantee that an employer will provide the requested accommodations.
The 2015 Supreme Court decision in the case of Young vs United Parcel Service (UPS) was seen as a step forward for pregnant women in the workplace. The Supreme Court justices ruled in favor of the plaintiff, Peggy Young, in a 6-3 ruling. Mrs. Young claimed UPS made her take unpaid leave versus accommodate her request for less lifting. The Supreme Court noted that pregnant workers have some legal ground in pregnancy discrimination claims if they can prove their employer did not provide them with the same accommodations as other employees with similar restrictions. Further precedence in legal rulings and the increase in advocacy groups for pregnant workers may help to combat pregnancy discrimination in the American workplace in the future.
Pregnant workers may not understand their rights due to the legal complexity of federal and state laws that remain somewhat ambiguous. Pregnancy@Work is affiliated with the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law. The organization’s website provides helpful resources for pregnant workers such as legal advice and templates for employer accommodation requests as well as resources for employers and healthcare providers.