It’s been one year since New York City passed the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, which is supposed to prevent employers from pushing pregnant women out of their jobs by making physical demands that the women cannot handle. While some women have been helped by the new law, Rachel Swarns of the New York Times found that enforcement leaves much to be desired.
Swarns interviewed one woman, Angelica Valencia, who lost her job at the Fierman Produce Exchange due to her high-risk pregnancy. The new law requires employers to provide “reasonable accommodation” of a pregnant worker’s temporary health care needs, but when Valencia tried to get such an accommodation—asking to not work overtime at the request of her doctor—she was met with significant resistance:
But when Ms. Valencia told her supervisors in July that she had a high-risk pregnancy, they told her she could work only without restrictions, she said. After taking time off to try to negotiate an accommodation with the company, she returned when her co-workers volunteered to handle the heavy machinery and lifting.
In August, she said, her supervisors insisted that she work overtime. Ms. Valencia felt so ill after two lengthy shifts that she went to the hospital and then to her doctor, who gave her the letter that she handed to her boss.
In response, she says, the company told her she either had to get a “full duty release”—a note from the doctor rescinding all previously requested work restrictions and instead stating she needs no accommodations—or she would lose her job. Valencia argued that her job could accommodate her because “the company’s busy season typically ended in September, and that overtime was rarely needed during the rest of the year.” No go. She either had to get her doctor to rescind his recommendations or she would lose her job. So she “turned in her company identification and wept as she started the long commute home.”
Valencia says her employer never informed her of her rights under the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, and she was heartened to hear that she has some possible legal recourse. She’s now working with A Better Balance, a legal organization that advocates for labor rights. They’ve already won two cases against employers who were in violation of the law, giving some hope to Valencia.
That said, Valencia’s case shows one of the serious limitations of anti-discrimination laws like the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, which is that enforcement tends to be driven by the workers themselves, who frequently have to go through the process of filing complaints and even suing in order to get their basic rights. Not everyone has the time or resources to do that, especially if you’ve just lost your job and you have a baby on the way. The entire reason that Valencia needed the work accommodation in the first place is that stress put her pregnancy at risk. Needless to say, getting fired and trying to get recourse for that also seems like it would be stressful. While the fear of lawsuits might scare some employers into following the law, others may reasonably assume they can take their chances that an already financially stressed pregnant employee is going to be too worried about taking care of herself and her family to take on the pressures that come with suing a company.
“I can’t help wondering how many other pregnant women are still being pushed out of jobs they desperately need,” Swarns writes. The current system that relies on employee complaints and lawsuits means there’s very little way to know, as the women who decide it’s not worth it to seek legal recourse aren’t standing up and being counted. Perhaps it’s time to start considering proactive measures of the sort that we have to check businesses for compliance with tax and safety regulations. Employers who don’t fear lawsuits from workers might straighten up with the prospect of random audits hanging over their heads.