Pregnancy discrimination claims more common in low-wage, male-dominated jobs

TRACY FRANK Forum News Service BISMARCK, N.D. -- When Steph Meier took a job managing a maternity clothing store, she never expected her boss would harass her because she was pregnant. Or as Meier put it, "The most ironic thing that could ever ha...

Forum News Service

BISMARCK, N.D. - When Steph Meier took a job managing a maternity clothing store, she never expected her boss would harass her because she was pregnant.
Or as Meier put it, “The most ironic thing that could ever happen.”
Meier, 29, said she staffed the Motherhood Maternity shop in Bismarck by herself for months and that her boss repeatedly told her to find a different job because she couldn’t handle working so much during her pregnancy.
Fed up, Meier quit in March 2013, and she filed a discrimination complaint against her former employer.
“It just shocks me that things like this still happen today,” she said.
Meier, who reached a settlement with Motherhood Maternity, is one of over 100 pregnant workers in North Dakota who have filed similar claims with state and federal officials since 2000, a Forum analysis found.
In recent years, the numbers of pregnancy discrimination complaints have dropped locally and nationally. Based on these statistics, it’s hard to say whether such discrimination is actually declining or whether fewer victims are filing claims, women’s rights advocates say.
But what’s certain is that pregnant women in North Dakota, Minnesota and elsewhere continue to face discrimination, especially those who are low-wage workers, like nursing assistants and retail clerks, and those in traditionally male fields, like police officers and package delivery drivers, advocates say.
Women in these occupations, which can require lifting or standing for long stretches, sometimes find themselves at odds with their employers when seeking lighter duties because of pregnancy. Lately, there’s been a wave of state legislation aimed at easing the burdens of pregnant women in the workplace.
Even in jobs that aren’t physically demanding, there can be discrimination stemming from notions that pregnant women are not competent or committed to their work.
“A lot of pregnancy discrimination is based on insidious sorts of stereotypes, which may not always be completely conscious,” said Emily Martin, general counsel at the National Women’s Law Center, a nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C.
‘I wanted to work’
For Lindzie McDonald, working as an emergency dispatcher was a dream job.
“When you get those 911 calls, it’s an adrenaline rush,” she said. “You’re the lifesaver on the end of that line.”
But that dream ended too quickly, said McDonald, who was fired less than three months after she started at the McKenzie County Sheriff’s Department because pregnancy complications kept her from working her scheduled shifts.
“I got really, really sick,” she said. “I tried working while sick because they didn’t have a lot of dispatchers.”
McDonald, who lives in Watford City, ended up in the emergency room where she found out that on top of being sick, she was also pregnant.
She said her doctor told her part of the reason she felt so ill was because she wasn’t getting enough sleep. Dispatchers worked 12-hour shifts, sometimes during the day and sometimes at night. When she worked night shifts, she said, it was difficult to sleep during the day.
“My average sleep was only about four to five hours when I was working these shifts because my body wouldn’t go to sleep,” she said.
McDonald’s doctor gave her a note asking her employer to consider putting her on day shifts while she was pregnant, she said. The answer from the sheriff’s department was “no.”
Letting McDonald work only day shifts during her pregnancy would have gone against the department’s policy and would have been unfair to the other dispatchers covering her shifts, according to documents filed with the North Dakota Department of Labor and Human Rights.
McDonald lost her job in June 2012 because she couldn’t comply with the department’s policy, according to the documents.
“I wanted to work,” she said. “But there was only so much I could do.”
In February 2013, McDonald filed a charge of pregnancy discrimination against the sheriff’s department. The Department of Labor and Human Rights, which investigated her case, found that she had not been discriminated against and that she was not entitled to accommodations different than any other employee with a temporary medical condition.
The McKenzie County Sheriff’s Department did not return phone calls or emails seeking comment, and Scott Porsborg, the department’s attorney, declined to discuss the case.
These days, McDonald and her husband manage a campground and own a trucking business, but she’s had trouble getting another job since being fired as a dispatcher.
“It’s very frustrating,” she said. “It still upsets me.”
Making accommodations
Last month, the North Dakota House unanimously approved a bill that would require employers to give pregnant workers reasonable accommodations, including at times of morning sickness, said Renee Stromme, executive director of the North Dakota Women’s Network.
Stromme said she’s optimistic the bill will become law. “It isn’t terribly burdensome to an employer,” she said. “It’s just a small adjustment.”
At least 12 states, including Minnesota, have already enacted so-called accommodation laws, which place limits on lifting and allow for more frequent food, water and restroom breaks. These state laws are meant to close gaps in the federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978, which doesn’t specifically require employers to accommodate pregnant workers.
However, federal law does mandate that employers treat pregnant workers the same as other employees “who are similar in their ability or inability to work,” according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Some interpretations of federal law have cleared the way for companies to put employees injured at work on light duty while not giving pregnant workers the same accommodation, said Ariela Migdal, a women’s rights attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union.
“There’s all different ways that companies have managed to offer their light-duty programs kind of to everyone except pregnant workers, and some courts have said that’s OK,” she said.
The U.S. Supreme Court is considering this question in the case of Peggy Young, a delivery driver for the United Parcel Service in Maryland, whose doctor advised her not to lift more than 20 pounds at work during her pregnancy. This led UPS to force Young to take an extended, unpaid leave of absence, and she later sued the company.

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