I was the highest-ranking account executive and the only female employee at a Rent-A-Center in South Carolina. I loved my job. When I told my store manager that I was pregnant, he congratulated me. And when I started experiencing morning sickness, he quickly agreed to let me arrive later in the morning and work later in the afternoon. We formalized this new arrangement when I signed an agreement that outlined my new hours. My manager liked this new schedule because he was able to leave work earlier since I’d be there to close the store.
For the first two weeks the new shift went without a hitch. But once the district manager found out that I was pregnant, he told me the schedule change that I’d worked out with my store manager could not continue. He had me join a conference call with him, the regional manager, and a representative from Human Resources. The regional manager said he did not want me to hurt myself or miscarry. I reassured him repeatedly that I was fully capable of working and that it posed no risks to my pregnancy. The Human Resources representative mentioned lifting and I told them that I only occasionally needed to lift anything on the job. I explained that on the few occasions in the past when my job required me to lift something heavy, my coworkers had always helped me out. But the district manager simply ordered me to go home and take a two-week paid vacation. I was sent home even though a coworker who sprained his foot was allowed to continue working on light duty and refrain from lifting. A manager who sprained his shoulder was also allowed to stay at work, given light duty, and permitted to avoid lifting. In fact, they had a policy of accommodating on-the-job injuries.
I was only about 13 weeks pregnant and had a long way to go before giving birth. During my forced vacation Rent-A-Center sent me a Family & Medical Leave Act (FMLA) packet and my doctor filled it out, saying that I should not lift more than 20-25 pounds. Because of this lifting restriction, Rent-A-Center placed me on 12 weeks of unpaid FMLA leave, even though I wanted to continue working and even though my job very rarely required heavy lifting. At the end of the 12-week leave, I came back ready to work, but HR said I had to wait until after I had delivered my baby. They told me that if my position was still available at that location after my baby was born I could go back to work—but there was no guarantee that it would be.
The timing could not have been worse. My husband and I had just made a down payment on a house and were about to close the deal. Without my income, we were forced to back out of the contract. So I was out of a job and no longer able to help support my family. My husband and I saw our dream of owning a home vanish. Two weeks after giving birth I tried to go back to work, but they would not let me. I tried again the following month and was again denied. Two and a half months after my baby was born I got a letter saying that I would be terminated unless I got a doctor’s release indicating I could go back to work without restrictions. I turned in a doctor’s note clearing me to go back to work, but was still terminated three months after giving birth. It hit me that I was now going to need to find a new job while I had a new infant at home.
Natasha Jackson brought a pregnancy discrimination claim against Rent-A-Center and took her case to arbitration. Rent-A-Center argued that it let her go because of her lifting restriction, while acknowledging that it accommodated other workers with similar limitations caused by on-the-job injuries, but the arbitrator found that accommodating limitations caused by on-the-job injuries while refusing to accommodate Natasha’s similar limitation did not constitute pregnancy discrimination. The arbitration process took over two years. After a period of working any job she could find, Natasha went back to school and obtained an Associate’s Degree in Early Child Care Management. She hopes to open up a child care center soon.
It Shouldn’t Be a Heavy Lift: Fair Treatment for Pregnant Workers, a report from A Better Balance and the National Women’s Law Center, features this and other stories of pregnancy discrimination in the workplace. Click here to read the other stories and learn more.