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Study: Informing Your Employer You're Pregnant Could Lead To Immediate Firing

A pregnant woman visits a doctor's office.
Daniel Lobo
Creative Commons / flickr.com/photos/daquellamanera

A new report finds that when a female employee asks for an accommodation at work because of a pregnancy, in many cases, she'll be fired.

UMass Amherst researchers did an exhaustive review of the more than 26,000 pregnancy discrimination charges filed with state and federal agencies between 2012 and 2016. Researchers found that workplace-based sex discrimination is a persistent problem, despite existing legal protections.

Carly McCann is one of the study's co-authors and a PhD candidate in the UMass Amherst economics department. She talked about the origins of the study.

Carly McCann, UMass Amherst: A few years ago, we did a report on sexual harassment that was kind of following in the wake of the #MeToo movement, which was really interesting. And from there, I started looking in more in detail at different types of sex discrimination charges. And that led me to want to investigate pregnancy discrimination in more detail.

Carrie Healy, NEPM: So that's what spurred the topic of this study. Why is your review important?

I think one that really stark findings from our study highlights how pregnancy discrimination is really a unique form of sex discrimination that happens very quickly compared to other forms of discrimination, and is a very targeted response to employers learning of an employee's pregnancy status.

Often, she is fired on the same day or within the week, of disclosing her pregnancy status to her employer.

Isn't pregnancy status protected in some way?

Yes. Under the federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act, pregnancy was added under Title VII as a form of sex discrimination, but it doesn't guarantee outright protections.

So if a pregnant worker needs some type of workplace accommodation — for example, she needs to take more frequent breaks — she's not outright guaranteed these protections. But rather, she can only access these protections if her employer already provides accommodations to workers who are "similar in their ability or inability to work." So this creates a comparator problem.

There are also a patchwork of protections at the state level — including in Massachusetts — and an effort in Congress to strengthen existing federal rules. But could you give me an example of a situation in which perhaps somebody who tells their supervisor they need an accommodation, and they were pregnant, is just going to end up fired?

A really well-known example actually led to a Supreme Court case in 2015 involving a woman named Peggy Young, who was working for UPS. She typically delivered packages that were delivered overnight, so they were typically pretty light packages. But according to her job description, she was required to lift packages up to 70 pounds, and requested an accommodation during her pregnancy, which was very unlikely to affect her job.

But she was actually placed on unpaid leave, and told that she couldn't return until she was able to lift that 70 pounds required by her job description.

And that [case] proceeded all the way to the Supreme Court. And during that investigation, they actually found that UPS was accommodating all types of other workers, including workers who lost their driving license due to driving under the influence, but they weren't accommodating pregnancy. So that was a very stark, clear example of employers accommodating other types of workers, but not pregnancy.

Did your study find that there was any one particular sector or industry that was more apt to quickly fire someone for pregnancy?

As you can imagine, industries vary by their gender and age composition, generally. The number of pregnant workers at risk for this type of discrimination is going to vary by industry. So we looked at the pregnancy discrimination rate, and found that this rate is higher in male-dominated industry.

So you can think of industries like transportation and warehousing, which has one of the largest pregnancy discrimination rates, followed by industries like wholesale trade and manufacturing. These industries tend to include pretty physically demanding jobs.

How does this review differ from other reviews that have been done in the past?

A lot of existing studies that look at pregnancy discrimination tend to focus on cases that proceed through the legal process, and result in litigated court cases. However, a lot of discrimination charges, generally — and this includes pregnancy discrimination — don't actually proceed all the way through that process to an actual court case. Most of them are settled.

Our study is one of the first studies to look at all charges of pregnancy discrimination that are filed with the [U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission] or a state agency. So we have a much broader look and understanding of pregnancy discrimination charges.

What are the economic stakes of the results from this report?

Women who experience pregnancy discrimination often either lose their jobs or are placed on unpaid leave. Obviously, losing a job and income, and maybe potentially one's health insurance, right before having a child can have huge economic consequences.

But there can also be considerable health risks for women if they don't get an accommodation that they need while pregnant, but continue to work. They can the risk of the health of their pregnancy.

Carrie Healy hosts the local broadcast of "Morning Edition" at NEPM. She also hosts the station’s weekly government and politics segment “Beacon Hill In 5” for broadcast radio and podcast syndication.
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