August 12, 2019

Pregnant women face discrimination up and down the economic ladder—but low-wage workers suffer the most.

In 2014, Kristine Webb was working at an Olive Garden restaurant in Rapid City, South Dakota, when a coworker told her about an opening at a local AT&T Mobility store. Her coworker seemed “really excited” about his new position, Webb recalled, so she applied there, too.

Webb got the job and quickly came to love it. “It was a really good place to work,” she said. She grew close with her managers and coworkers. She started out as a sales representative, selling cell phones, tablets, and data plans; then she became a sales support rep, doing back-office work like inventory. “I actually really enjoyed going to work every day.” She decided that if there was a chance to go further at the company, “then absolutely I would want to take it.” She said that a couple of years in, she started discussing with her manager the possibility of getting promoted. “He was more than willing to help me.” Around the same time, she was accepted into the company’s Build the Bench program, which trained employees for advancement.

As she was completing that program in early 2017, Webb found out she was pregnant with her first child. But she didn’t expect it to be a problem. “Honestly, I wasn’t worried at all,” she said. “I had really great relationships with the managers and everyone at the store…. I just figured everyday work life would go on.” But then she developed hyperemesis gravidarum—severe morning sickness, with extreme and constant nausea and vomiting—and it “was pretty much an all-day event.”

. . .

In June, Webb filed a lawsuit against AT&T Mobility, represented by Kalpana Kotagal, a partner at Cohen Milstein, a national plaintiff-side law firm, and Gillian Thomas of the American Civil Liberties Union. Kotagal and Thomas argue that AT&T Mobility’s policy violates the Pregnancy Discrimination Act. Passed in 1978 as an amendment to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, the PDA prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, or related conditions. AT&T Mobility’s policy discriminates against pregnant workers on its face by excluding their needs from its list of excused absences, the lawyers argue. “Pregnancy, pregnancy-related complications, and childbirth are just not even on the list [of reasons for absence],” said Kotagal. “They’re nowhere there. It’s oblivion.”

. . .

She decided that she wouldn’t stay silent. She filed a lawsuit in May 2018 against AT&T Mobility with another plaintiff, Katia Hill, claiming that the company violated their rights under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act. Webb’s mother noticed an article about the lawsuit and sent it to her daughter. That’s when Webb realized, “Wow, this isn’t something that…only happened to me, but it’s something that’s happening to a lot of different women.” She reached out to Hill on Facebook, who connected her to Kotagal and Thomas.

“The biggest part of it was knowing that it wasn’t just me, that there are other women that had to go through that and feel the exact same way that I did and I still do,” Webb said. “It made me want to do something about it so that other people don’t have to go through that.”

Advocates argue that the Americans With Disabilities Act offers a model for finding solutions that can keep pregnant women at work. Under the ADA, employers are obligated to work with employees with disabilities to make accommodations that work for both sides. “The assumption [is] that we will in most cases be able to make it work if we think creatively and we have a solution-oriented mind-set,” Kotagal said. That mind-set hasn’t carried over to how employers approach pregnancy. When businesses ask Thomas how they’re supposed to accommodate a pregnant worker, she responds, “If this were not a pregnancy but if it were jury duty, what would you do?… What if I told you I had cancer? How would we handle that?” Most have an answer for the other questions. But in the case of pregnancy, they either haven’t taken the time or don’t want to take the time to find a way to make it work.

The complete article can be accessed here.