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A rising number of pregnant women in Pa. report workplace discrimination, while other states pass laws to prevent it

Forty years after the Pregnancy Discrimination Act was passed, a push to update state and federal laws has resulted in changes in more than half of states. But in Pennsylvania, a proposed bill has not been passed, and an increasing number of women have reported discrimination in the last five years.

Lynee Boney, 30, of  Germantown, has filed a lawsuit against her former employer, which she says cut her hours after she got pregnant.
Lynee Boney, 30, of Germantown, has filed a lawsuit against her former employer, which she says cut her hours after she got pregnant.Read moreTYGER WILLIAMS / Staff Photographer

One was a casino dealer forced to work in the smoking section while pregnant.

Another was an urgent-care medical assistant whose hours were cut dramatically after she came back from a week of bed rest.

A third was a Walmart distribution center worker, fired the day after telling her manager she was expecting — because, he claimed, she clocked in three minutes late after stopping to vomit on the way to work.

All are Southeastern Pennsylvania women who ended up without jobs after getting pregnant. All have sued their former employers for discrimination.

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Across the country, complaints over pregnancy discrimination have decreased as two dozen states have enacted new protections for expectant mothers amid a quiet cultural shift with bipartisan support. A proposed update to existing federal law that would require employers to provide pregnant workers “reasonable accommodations” — such as a chair, water, more restroom breaks, or temporary light duty — may have its best chance in years at clearing the House.

But in Pennsylvania, which has no such law, pregnancy discrimination claims are rising.

The number of Pennsylvania women registering complaints each year to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reached 190 in the 2018 fiscal year, capping a 30% spike over five years. The state’s Human Relations Commission fielded 255 additional complaints during that span, and over the last decade, the Women’s Law Project has also heard from more pregnant women, said staff lawyer Margaret Zhang.

Nationally, EEOC investigations have led to $136.2 million in payouts to women claiming pregnancy discrimination since the 2010 fiscal year. Only about a third of the EEOC complaints end in some type of settlement or benefit for the complainant; for most other cases, the aggrieved must take their chances in court or drop their cause.

Losing a job, seeing hours cut, or missing out on a promotion can derail a woman’s career, jeopardize her baby’s health, and have deep financial impact, advocates say. Becoming unemployed right before having a baby can mean a loss in anticipated income or health care. And it contributes to the gender wage gap by lowering women’s lifetime earnings or forcing career breaks.

“I was stressing constantly trying to figure out how I was going to provide for my newborn baby,” said Lynee Boney, 30, the Philadelphia medical assistant who said she felt forced to quit her job after her hours were cut. “I didn’t know what to do.”

‘The opportunity to move forward’

The federal Pregnant Workers Fairness Act has gained momentum since Democrats took control of the House. Last month, the bill received its first committee hearing, and 11 major companies, including Facebook, Microsoft, Spotify, and L’Oréal USA, have signaled their support for it. Advocates say they’re optimistic it could soon pass in the House.

“We have bipartisan support now, so it should be noncontroversial and it should have the opportunity to move forward," said Alex Baptiste, policy counsel at the National Partnership for Women and Families. “Our priority right now is making sure we can get it out of the House.”

But winning support from the Senate or White House anytime soon is a long shot with Republicans in control. The proposal has drawn concern from business groups worried about rising costs to employers, and the Senate version of the bill, sponsored by Pennsylvania Democrat Bob Casey, lost its cosponsor when Nevada Republican Dean Heller failed to win reelection in 2018.

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In requiring employers to accommodate expectant workers, the bill and the similar state laws aim to address one of the main forms of workplace discrimination for pregnant women these days.

“This is an optimal opportunity, if someone wants to discriminate, to do it in a very subtle way,” said Zhang, the Women’s Law Project lawyer. "Instead of firing the person … the employer may simply say, ‘No, we can’t give you those breaks … and therefore you’re going to have to start your leave early or we’re going to have to let you go.’”

In Harrisburg, a similar bill gained bipartisan and business support last session but did not get a vote. This year, sponsor Rep. Sheryl Delozier (R., Cumberland) hopes to push it through, but it hasn’t had a hearing.

The bill aims to “make sure that we have those that are pregnant in our workforce stay healthy and [be] able to do their jobs, which is what they want to do,” Delozier said. “They want to be good workers, but they also want to have a healthy pregnancy.”

In 2014, Philadelphia made it illegal for an employer not to provide reasonable accommodations for workers facing pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions. It is one of five major cities with such regulations. New Jersey also passed a similar law in 2014.

Supporters say these laws also make employers’ obligations clearer, leading to simpler negotiations and fewer lawsuits. Though there’s no data yet on the impact of the reforms, advocates report overwhelming feedback from women and groups that they “absolutely” help prevent problems, said Elizabeth Gedmark, vice president of the working parents’ advocacy group A Better Balance.

The pending federal legislation would address concerns with a provision written into the 1978 Pregnancy Discrimination Act and upheld in a 2015 Supreme Court decision that critics say sets too high a bar. It requires women who claim pregnancy discrimination to prove that a coworker who was not pregnant got the accommodations they were denied.

Advocates cite the case of Janasia Wadley, a day-care worker at Kiddie Academy of Langhorne who had miscarried after a kidney infection. After getting pregnant again, Wadley requested additional restroom breaks to prevent another infection. But she was fired after she took a restroom break, according to the federal lawsuit she later filed.

The day-care contended that it fired Wadley for leaving too many children with only one other teacher when she went to the restroom. The parties ultimately reached a settlement, records show. But in a memorandum, U.S. District Judge Gerald J. Pappert said she had not satisfied the requirement to show that colleagues who weren’t pregnant were treated more favorably.

“The court was saying because she couldn’t find someone else who was given more bathroom breaks and was not pregnant that she wasn’t entitled to one,” Gedmark said.

‘I just felt like it was wrong’

Boney was a full-time Philadelphia medical assistant at myDoc Urgent Care in Center City when she got pregnant in 2017. Early on, she took a week off for bed rest after experiencing cramping. When she returned, her boss moved her to a front desk clerk position, then started telling her that she was making mistakes — even though Boney said she demonstrated that she was doing the job correctly.

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“[My boss] kept saying due to my health reasons, she felt I could do a little less work,” Boney said in an interview Tuesday. Then, “she said my pregnancy was interfering with my work, [that] it was causing me to mess up on labs.”

Eventually, her hours were cut to five a week. When her employer wouldn’t increase her hours, Boney quit, and later filed her discrimination claim.

In an e-mailed statement, William J. Fox, lawyer for myDoc Urgent Care, said: “My client denies Ms. Boney’s allegations and is defending this matter in court."

A single mother without a paycheck, Boney had to move into her grandparents’ home, and struggled to find new work. “I actually got into a deep depression about it,” she recalled in an interview Tuesday.

Pregnancy discrimination disproportionately affects women of color, such as Boney, because they “too often are in low-wage jobs and … [are] facing layers of discrimination," Gedmark said.

Women across sectors and job levels experience discrimination, but low-wage workers are often harder hit because they have less bargaining power, may not be able to easily switch jobs, or are doing physical labor, lawyers said. “It can really cause a downward spiral into poverty," Gedmark said.

A lack of accommodations can also have health implications: Heavy lifting, extensive standing, long work hours, dehydration, or lack of restroom breaks have been shown to increase the danger of premature birth, miscarriage, or , a condition that can lead to serious or fatal complications, according to a report by A Better Balance.

The number of women who experience discrimination is tough to document, lawyers said, because many never report it or decide not to pursue what they fear could be a costly or emotionally difficult complaint.

Those who do, however, often “feel like they have a responsibility to speak up,” Zhang said, and want to change the culture at their company.

Boney found another job as a medical record expediter months after her daughter Emory, now 1, was born. She still hasn’t gotten her own place yet, and her lawsuit against her former employer is unresolved.

“I just felt like it was wrong,” Boney said Tuesday. “I just want the company to know right from wrong, that dealing with someone who is having a child … you can’t do these type of things. It’s not right at all.”