Talisa Borders was pregnant and making it work at her job in the pharmacy department at a Walmart in East St. Louis, Illinois. As her pregnancy progressed, she avoided lifting heavy objects and climbing ladders, and so she traded tasks with coworkers occasionally. But when she was seven months pregnant, her supervisor asked her to bring in a doctor’s note setting out her restrictions. When she turned in the note stating that she should not lift more than 25 pounds or climb ladders, Walmart immediately pushed her out onto unpaid leave—even though she made clear she was capable of doing her job with minor accommodations and wanted to continue working. The Human Resources coordinator at her store told her that accommodations were only available for those who had on-the-job injuries and this was a corporate policy that could not be changed by individual store managers.
In Jacksonville, Florida, Otisha Woolbright had a similar experience working in the deli and bakery at Walmart. After she experienced pain and bleeding early in her pregnancy, her doctor advised her to avoid heavy lifting, but her supervisor told her that if she couldn’t do heavy lifting she could “walk out those doors” and that pregnancy was “no excuse.” Shortly thereafter, she injured herself doing the exact sort of heavy lifting she had sought to avoid; only then, after she had been hurt because of Walmart’s failure to accommodate her restrictions, did Walmart provide her with job duties that did not include lifting, because she then had an on-the-job injury. A few months later, immediately after she asked about Walmart’s policies around taking time off for childbirth, Otisha was fired.
Otisha and Talisa were just two of the many pregnant women around the country who suffered the effects of Walmart’s discriminatory policies and practices. At Walmart, the nationwide rule and practice was that associates who needed some on-the-job changes because of medical needs arising out of pregnancy were ineligible for the reassignments or transfers of nonessential duties that associates with disabilities or on-the-job injuries could receive. In others words, if you couldn’t lift more than 25 pounds because of an on-the-job back injury, or because of some medical condition other than pregnancy, you might well be eligible for reassignment to a position that did not require lifting. If you needed that change in your job duties because you were pregnant, you were out of luck. As a result, pregnant associates like Otisha and Talisa were regularly terminated, forced onto unpaid leave, or required to continue to do tasks that their medical providers had advised against and bear the associated health risks. No one should have to choose between her job and the health of her pregnancy, but by failing to provide accommodations to those pregnant workers who needed them, Walmart forced women to make that choice again and again.
That is why the National Women’s Law Center, in partnership with A Better Balance and the law firm Mehri & Skalet, filed a nationwide class action against Walmart last month, on behalf of Talisa, Otisha, and the thousands of women who, like them, between March 2013 and March 2014 worked for Walmart while pregnant, who were denied needed accommodations, and who as a result lost pay or even lost their jobs, at the very moment their families’ expenses were about to increase. By refusing to make the same sort of accommodations for pregnant associates that it made for associates with other types of similar medical needs, Walmart violated the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, which requires employers to treat pregnant workers just as well as they treat those non-pregnant workers who are similar in their ability to work. As the Supreme Court made clear two years ago in the case Young v UPS, employers who make accommodations for disabilities and on-the-job injuries while refusing to make accommodations for pregnancy will often violate the Pregnancy Discrimination Act. By treating pregnant associates as second-class citizens, Walmart broke the law, again and again.
In March 2014, in response to concerns raised by the National Women’s Law Center, A Better Balance, and its shareholders, Walmart revised its pregnancy accommodation policies to state that temporary disabilities arising out of pregnancy were eligible for the full range of accommodations provided to other disabilities. While this appeared to be a step forward, the policy still suggested that medical needs for accommodation arising out of ordinary pregnancy, rather than pregnancy complications, were not covered. And once again, the experience of women working at Walmart revealed an ongoing failure to make accommodations. For example, our client Candis Riggins, who worked for a Walmart in Laurel, Maryland, after Walmart’s policy change, repeatedly asked her supervisor if she could work as a cashier rather than in maintenance using harsh chemicals after her physician advised her to avoid work with those chemicals during her pregnancy. Her requests to change jobs were ignored. Finally she started calling in sick because of the impact the chemicals were having on her. Walmart promptly fired her.
Walmart is the largest private employer in the United States. In 22 states, it is the largest employer period. How it treats its many, many pregnant employees has a huge impact on maternal and infant health and on families’ economic security. By seeking justice for those women who were harmed by their discriminatory policies and practices we are standing up to Walmart, working to remedy the harm it has inflicted in the past and to ensure that it changes for the better, for the sake of all the pregnant Walmart associates working hard to make a better life for their families.