Enforcing Pregnancy Bias Law of 1978? Long Overdue

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Last month, the EEOC gave legal experts an opportunity to tell stories about archaic forms of work discrimination suffered by today's pregnant women and caregivers. Such complaints are jumping, and employers are well advised to learn the laws.

WASHINGTON, D.C. (WOMENSENEWS)--Female firefighters required to take pregnancy tests--and test negative--to be hired.

A pregnant truck driver fired after requesting "light duty" work per her doctor's recommendations.

A pregnant sales clerk told to get an abortion by her supervisor.

Stories from the dark ages of working women's history? Sorry.

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This is fresh stuff from last month's long overdue hearing by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). These shocking, blatant attacks on working women are going on more than three decades after passage of the 1978 Pregnancy Discrimination Act, which requires most employers to treat pregnant women the same as other applicants or employees.

They are going on even though women are nearly half the work force and at a time when many women work through, and immediately after, pregnancy.

"The discrimination faced by pregnant workers and caregivers has persisted for decades, despite the laws and court decision that sought to root out such discrimination long ago," testified Judith Lichtman, senior adviser at the National Partnership for Women and Families in Washington, D.C. "Many employers continue to defy their legal obligations with impunity, leaving workers and their families in precarious economic situations at the very time when they are most in need of stability."

Kudos to the EEOC for spotlighting this issue.

Pregnancy discrimination--far from fading out--is becoming more conspicuous.

In the last decade, claims filed with the EEOC by pregnant women have risen sharply, from 4,160 in fiscal year 2000 to 6,119 in fiscal year 2010, says Emily Martin, vice president and general counsel at the National Women's Law Center, the Washington legal advocacy. About 1-in-5 of all charges brought by women, in fact, involve claims of pregnancy discrimination, Lichtman added.

Despite the expansion of mothers and caregivers in the workplace, supervisors and employers are hardly making things any easier.

On top of discrimination and all kinds of other barriers--rigid work schedules, no paid time off to manage family responsibilities, the outrageous cost of quality child care, and the list goes on--mothers face a "wage penalty" of as much as 5 percent per child, says Stephen Benard, a professor of sociology at Indiana University in Bloomington, Ind.

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I was the first woman attorney in the Office of the General Counsel at the EEOC and drafted its Guidelines on Pregnancy and Childbirth, which were published in 1972 and later incorporated into the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978.

Few people understand the current law relative to pregnancy and childbirth. For that reason, I wrote an article on that subject for the Women in Science website and you can find my article at


Sonia Pressman Fuentes