(Washington, D.C.) Walmart’s recent refusal to accommodate the medical needs of a pregnant worker demonstrates that its March 2014 revision of its written pregnancy accommodation policy for all United States employees has failed to remedy the superstore’s continuing practice of pregnancy discrimination, according to a letter sent to the company and made public today by the National Women’s Law Center, A Better Balance, and Mehri & Skalet, PLLC. In order to comply with the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, Walmart must make temporary accommodations available to all pregnant workers with a medical need for them, just as Walmart accommodates other medical needs, so pregnant workers are not forced to choose between their health and their job, the advocates say.
The letter highlights the case of Candis Riggins, a former associate at the Walmart store in Laurel, Maryland. One of her job duties involved cleaning store bathrooms with harmful chemicals that repeatedly made her sick during her pregnancy. Multiple doctors advised Riggins to stop using the chemicals during her pregnancy because of the risk they posed. In March and April 2014, after Walmart had adopted a new written policy requiring accommodation of pregnancy-related disabilities, Riggins repeatedly asked different managers for a reassignment due to her doctors’ concerns. She was occasionally allowed to work as a cashier, but her repeated requests to be permanently reassigned to cashier duties during her pregnancy were ignored, even as the store continued to hire new cashiers and even after she submitted a “Career Preference” form officially requesting a transfer. As a result, Riggins continued to clean the bathrooms with the chemicals, landing twice in the hospital emergency room.
“What Candis Riggins’ case shows is either Walmart is failing to take even basic steps to implement its new pregnancy accommodation policy, or Walmart doesn’t believe that a worker with the sort of medical needs Candis had has a pregnancy-related disability eligible for accommodation under its new policy,” said Ellen Eardley, a partner at Mehri & Skalet. “Either way, that is a legal problem, as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission made clear earlier this month, when it released new guidance reiterating employers’ obligations to make accommodations for pregnant workers in situations like Candis’s.”
Walmart never engaged Riggins in the process outlined in its revised policy designed to determine what accommodation might work for her, nor was she even told about Walmart’s new policy of accommodating pregnancy-related temporary disabilities. Because of continuing symptoms of pain and nausea—and Walmart’s ongoing refusal to provide her with a reasonable accommodation—Riggins decided she could no longer risk her health and that of her pregnancy and began calling in sick beginning in late April. As a result, she was terminated about a month later.
The advocates’ letter calls on Walmart to immediately reinstate Riggins, compensate her for lost wages, and strengthen and fully implement its pregnancy accommodation policy. The letter also asks Walmart to remedy its pattern of discrimination by compensating all women who have been harmed by Walmart’s unlawful practices.
“When I cleaned the bathrooms the chemical fumes made me sick,” said Riggins. “But I kept going as long as I could to support my two other children. Walmart gave light duty to my colleague who hurt his back, but when I asked for a temporary job transfer they wouldn’t help me out. Finally, I had to choose between a healthy pregnancy and my paycheck. No pregnant worker should have to make that terrible decision.”
Walmart announced its new Accommodation in Employment policy in March, following many months of pressure from workers’ and women’s groups, including an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission charge alleging a nationwide pattern and practice of pregnancy discrimination filed by the National Women’s Law Center, A Better Balance, and Mehri & Skalet. The company’s earlier policy had explicitly stated that workers with medical needs arising out of pregnancy were not eligible for the reassignments available to workers with medical needs arising out of disabilities or on-the-job injuries. As a result, Walmart’s pregnant workers were routinely denied the types of reasonable accommodations that other workers received. Walmart’s March 2014 policy states that temporary disabilities caused by pregnancy are eligible for the same reasonable accommodations as other disabilities, but advocates cautioned that the policy remained ambiguous and that in order to ensure its compliance with pregnancy discrimination laws, Walmart should make clear that it would also reasonably accommodate medical needs arising out of normal pregnancies. Riggins’ example, and the examples of other pregnant Walmart workers who have recently faced similar discrimination, demonstrate the failings of Walmart’s new policy.
“What we’re asking for is full compliance with the law,” said Dina Bakst, Co-Founder & Co-President of A Better Balance. “Walmart needs to further update its policies to make clear that it will provide reasonable accommodations for all pregnant workers who have a medical need for them. Walmart also needs to train its managers in order to successfully end this discriminatory practice and ensure that it does not continue to harm pregnant employees. How many women have to come forward for Walmart to realize that it must deal with this problem without delay?”
“The Pregnancy Discrimination Act mandates equal treatment, nothing less, and we will continue to fight until Walmart obeys the law in full,” said Emily Martin, Vice President and General Counsel at the National Women’s Law Center. “No pregnant worker should be told she has to risk her health to keep her job when her employer routinely finds a way to accommodate other sorts of medical needs. Walmart’s slogan says ‘live better’; it should start by not making life worse for its pregnant employees.”