Pregnant workers at Walmart got a break earlier this year. After months of worker engagement and activism, and a class action discrimination charge brought by the National Women’s Law Center along with our partners, A Better Balance and Mehri & Skalet, the country’s largest employer of women announced a policy shift that represented a big step forward in ensuring that pregnant women who need them will receive basic accommodations. Previously, Walmart’s policy had explicitly stated that pregnancy was a condition eligible only for minor job adjustments and that a pregnant worker was ineligible for the same reassignments and transfers of nonessential job duties offered to workers with disabilities. As a result, as we heard from many Walmart associates, pregnant workers with medical needs for accommodation were routinely denied them, even as Walmart provided these accommodations for workers with medical needs stemming from non-pregnancy-related disabilities and on the job injuries, in violation of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA). For many women at Walmart, having a baby meant losing a paycheck, or even a job. This is what happened to our client, “Melissa,” who Walmart pushed onto unpaid leave early in her third trimester when her doctor told her to stay off ladders and avoid lifting more than 25-pounds.
But this spring, Walmart announced that it will begin to provide reasonable accommodations for temporary disabilities caused by pregnancy. This change is an important first step, but more is necessary to ensure that Walmart will treat pregnant workers as the law requires, allowing them to stay healthy and stay on the job. A better policy would avoid the ambiguous language “temporary disability caused by pregnancy,” which could be understood to apply only to workers with pregnancy complications. It would make clear that Walmart will provide reasonable accommodations to all workers who have a medical need for it, regardless of whether the need arises out of a normally-progressing pregnancy, or an illness, or an injury.
In addition to being required by the PDA, accommodating pregnant workers’ medical needs for temporary adjustments is smart business [PDF]. Many of the accommodations that pregnant workers need are those already sought by workers with disabilities, such as altering start and end times, providing break time, honoring lifting restrictions, or providing a stool or water bottle for the worker. Long experience providing accommodations to workers with disabilities has demonstrated that costs are minimal [PDF] and providing the accommodations has the benefits of reducing workforce turnover, increasing employee satisfaction and productivity, and savings in workers’ compensation and other insurance costs. Accommodating pregnant workers is not only family-friendly, it is good for the bottom line. Maybe Walmart is beginning to recognize this, as it takes its initial steps toward a policy that works for pregnant women.
On June 23, businesses, economists, labor leaders, legislators, advocates, and ordinary citizens will convene to focus on the needs of working families across the income spectrum. The White House Summit on Working Families is an opportunity for stakeholders to identify policy changes that will help to make full use of America’s talent pool and allow women to get and keep good jobs. Part of the conversation has to be about pregnancy discrimination. The birth of a child is one of the most common entry points into poverty, and pregnant workers are too often denied even minor accommodations when they need them to continue working. It doesn’t have to be this way—pregnancy discrimination is not good for workers and it is not good for business. Businesses must adopt clear policies providing accommodations for pregnant workers who need them.