(WOMENSENEWS)-- On July 14, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) released guidance about the workplace protections to which expectant women are guaranteed under 1978's Pregnancy Discrimination Act.
But for Julie DeSantis-Mayer, a Long Island, N.Y., former truck driver for UPS, they came too late.
In a recent phone interview, DeSantis-Mayer said that in early 2012 she asked UPS, the Atlanta-based delivery company, for light duty early in her pregnancy and heard nothing until the following October. By then she was eight months along. When she asked a supervisor why the company wouldn't find a different position she said she was told: "We're not going to start a precedent for pregnant women."
When she went back to work DeSantis-Mayer said she was given late-night work shifts even though she had a 3-month-old at home. "I felt as though I was choosing between putting food on the table and being a good mother," she said.
Feeling pushed out, she wound up leaving the company.
The July EEOC guidelines could have saved her job, since they call for the same temporary accommodations as those protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act, including being allowed light duty. The guidelines say that companies of a certain payroll size–those with 50 or more employees--cannot force pregnant workers to take leave if they are able to work.
The rules, if widely honored and enforced, could help women narrow the pressure that motherhood puts on women's lifetime. Women who have children earn up to 14 percent less than those who don't, according to a study by economist Kate Krause of the University of New Mexico.
Studies show that women with children make 73 cents to the male dollar, far less than the 90 cent figure for women without children. Single moms make 60 cents to a man's dollar.
More than one-quarter million women are denied requests for pregnancy accommodation each year, found a January study by the National Partnership for Women and Families; a figure considered conservative because so many women who need accommodations are afraid to ask for them.
Risky Low-Wage Jobs
That leeriness is particularly true for low-income workers, some of whom are punching a time clock, and for whom pregnancy appears to bring a higher risk of job loss. More than 45 percent of women who filed complaints about being fired while pregnant were in low-wage service sectors, compared to 31 percent in the high-wage sectors, according to a recent study.
"Women in service jobs and clock-in jobs don't even bother asking for workplace accommodations because they are afraid to ask," said Vicki Shabo, vice president of the National Partnership for Women and Families. "And when they do ask for accommodations, such as bathroom breaks or heavy-lifting restrictions, they are all too often denied." Such accommodations are common for workers who are temporarily disabled, such as having an injury, but pregnancy is often treated differently by employers.
Women make up almost two-thirds of all low-wage workers, according to 2012 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
In 2012, 5,797 cases of pregnancy discrimination were filed to the EEOC, part of a rising trend. In 2005, there were 4,730 cases filed.
Between 1996 and 2005, pregnancy-discrimination lawsuits rose 25 percent and 1 percent of women in a 2008 study by the National Partnership for Women and Families reported being fired for reasons related to pregnancy or childbirth.
Among the women in that 2008 study, claims by women of color leaped by 76 percent. Regardless of income, women in caregiving and nursing jobs also were more likely to experience pregnancy bias. These sectors have traditionally attracted black female employees, helping to explain the surge in claims.
A strong portion of the women hardest hit by pregnancy discrimination are also women working in traditionally male jobs. Some of these are gritty jobs such as truck driving, but they also include high-profile music conductors earning up to $275,000 a year.
While conducting the international "The Legend of Zelda: Symphony of the Goddesses" tour in 2013, Eimear Noone, who was 26 weeks pregnant, was fired by the show's producer after experiencing dizziness during the two-hour shows.
The shows required Noone to stand on stage under hot lights, and when she made a request for a stool to sit on during performances, she said that producers said she was being let go out of concern for her health.
Noone found work composing in recording sessions soon after, but the firing took an emotional as well as financial toll. "I went through postpartum depression--my confidence was affected," she said.
Desantis-Mayer, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, and Noone, represented by Equal Rights Advocates, have each filed pregnancy discrimination claims. UPS and Jason Michael Paul Productions, targets of the lawsuits, could not be reached for comment.
"Young people contact me for advice about this industry, especially girls who want to be composers," Noone said. "How can I tell these girls to follow their dreams if I don't stick up for myself?"
Some research finds workplace pregnancy discrimination costly for business as well as the women who suffer from it.
Fifty-seven percent of workplace accommodations cost the employer absolutely nothing, while 21 percent cost a one-time expense of $500, found a 2012 Job Accommodation Network report.
But the cost of training and recruiting new employers to fill in for former workers costs an average of 21 percent of the employees' salary, according to 2012 data from the Center for American Progress.
One reason employers continue to violate pregnant workers' rights is "because there's been so much variation in court's decisions regarding pregnancy discrimination," said Ariela Migdal, a senior staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union. "In many cases, the courts have sided against the mother if her employer argues that the accommodation she was asking for is excessive."
On July 1, the Supreme Court put in next year's docket the case of Peggy Young, a former UPS worker who was denied light duty after being restricted by her doctor from lifting more than 20 pounds during her pregnancy, after her claim of pregnancy discrimination was denied in a 2011 federal court case.
"Pregnant workers are being fired not for asking for the moon, but for common-sense accommodations," said Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, executive director and co-founder of MomsRising, an organization and media outlet based in Washington, D.C., that addresses problems affecting women and families.
Stacey Calvin, an employee at a preschool in Atlanta, injured her ankle when she was eight months pregnant. When she showed her employer her doctor's note requesting she stay off her foot for two days, she was promptly fired and told she could reapply for her position after giving birth.
The single mother of a 3-year-old boy had planned to work until her new baby girl was 6 weeks old. Instead, she had to file for unemployment, which she was denied.
Calvin began working alongside 9to5 National Association of Working Women, an advocacy group for workplace equity based in Milwaukee, and fights for an end to pregnancy discrimination. "Women should have the right to work and have a safe and healthy pregnancy and not have to choose between the two," she said.
Migdal, of the American Civil Liberties Union, hopes the government's recent rule sharpening for large companies will "trickle down" to smaller businesses. "This guidance provides a model for how businesses should respond to pregnant workers needs," she said. "This will bring forth action in ensuring pregnant workers can be accommodated by their employers."
This story is part of a special series, She Pays the Bias Price: From Girlhood to Final Years, which documents the cost of gender bias over the life span of girls and women. The series is supported by the Ford Foundation.