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Pregnancy discrimination: a real-world challenge

When Claire Danes became pregnant at the height of "Homeland's" success, did she lose her job? Of course not. The show made accommodations. Not all pregnant women are so lucky.

By Bette Begleiter and JoAnne Fischer

When Claire Danes, star of the critically acclaimed Homeland, became pregnant at the height of the show's success, did she lose her job? The pregnancy certainly did not fit into the plot of this action-packed thriller and could easily been seen as a serious impediment to character Carrie Mathison's ability to pursue and take down terrorists. But Danes continued in her role thanks to a clever wardrobe, strategic camera shots, and many other accommodations that the producers and directors made to work around her growing belly.

Not all pregnant women are so lucky.

Under current law, U.S. employers are not required to make even minimal accommodations for pregnant women, leaving many with no choice but to leave a job that they truly want or need.

How did we get here?

When Congress passed the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978, women won the right not to be treated adversely because of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions, and the right to be treated at least as well as other employees. Before that, women could (and were) fired simply for being pregnant.

While the law was hailed as a giant step forward for working pregnant women, it has become clear during the intervening years that it failed to adequately protect women from unreasonable treatment in the workplace. As a result of a loophole, pregnant women are protected from being treated differently than other workers but employers are not compelled to make reasonable accommodations for the pregnant women.

A lot of women - and a lot of employees - are affected by these issues: 65 percent of pregnant women and new mothers in Pennsylvania and New Jersey (70 percent in Delaware) were in the labor force in 2010, according to U.S. Census data cited by by the National Partnership for Women and Families. The National Women's Law Center has documented cases of discrimination nationwide, ranging from one in which a woman lost her job because her employer refused to allow her to carry a water bottle at work, to others where workers were refused requests to be put on "light duty" (like not having to lift over 20 lbs.).

Other organizations that provide services for women have plenty of examples of their own. In our work at the Maternity Care Coalition, women have told us about supervisors who were unwilling to allow them to sit periodically (the American Medical Association recommends a break from standing every four hours) or to approve flex time so that they could attend appointments for prenatal care.

For low-wage workers, "the risks are greater and the stakes higher," says Charmaine Smith Wright, an internist and pediatrician at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania (and a member of our organization's board). Accommodations may not be made, and pregnant women may not ask for fear of being fired. "During pregnancy, all mothers are at greater risk for infections, anemia, blood clots, passing out, arrhythmia, depression, and domestic violence than any other time in their life.  Simple modifications can decrease these risks, and fear of losing a job should not prevent modifications from happening,"  says Smith Wright.

In September, Sen. Bob Casey (D., Pa.) and Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D., N.Y.) introduced the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act in their respective chambers of Congress. The bills (S. 3565, H.R. 5647) were intended to close the loophole and strengthen the 1978 law. "Pregnant workers face discrimination in the workplace every day, which is an inexcusable detriment to women and working families in Pennsylvania and across the country," Casey said when the legislation was introduced. "My bill will finally extend fairness to pregnant women so that they can continue to contribute to a productive economy while progressing through pregnancy in good health."

Like so many bills of the 112th Congress, the act  never made it out of committee.  This is bad news for Pennsylvania, which ranks among the top 10 states for pregnancy discrimination claims to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and for Philadelphia, which struggles with high rates of chronic illness, maternal mortality and morbidity, and infant mortality and low birth weight.

We need to ensure that our pregnant citizens have the protections in the workplace that they need to support their – and their babies' – optimal health and well-being. The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act should immediately be reintroduced in the 113th Congress, sworn in last week, and quickly approved.

- Bette Begleiter and JoAnne Fischer

Read more about The Public's Health.