Low-Wage Workers Remain Vulnerable to Illegal Pregnancy Discrimination

One hospital worker's story reflects a larger truth: low-wage workers are especially vulnerable to employment discrimination.

“Amy Crosby’s situation is not unique, and low-wage workers are particularly at risk for this kind of discrimination” said Emily Martin, NWLC Vice President and General Counsel in an interview with RH Reality Check.
“Amy Crosby’s situation is not unique, and low-wage workers are particularly at risk for this kind of discrimination” said Emily Martin, NWLC Vice President and General Counsel in an interview with Rewire. Mopping image via Shutterstock

Amy Crosby, a hospital cleaner at Tallahassee Memorial Hospital, approached her employer for a modification of her job duties after her doctor told her that, at 23 weeks pregnant, Crosby had to quit all heavy lifting until she delivered. The pregnancy had aggravated her carpal-tunnel syndrome and was so bad she couldn’t even make a fist. Her employer’s response was quick and direct. Crosby was told the hospital didn’t make accommodations for pregnant workers and Crosby would instead have to take unpaid leave. Crosby was also told that she will be terminated if she does not return to work by April 11 while continuing to refuse Crosby’s requested accommodation.

The thing is, that’s illegal.

The National Women’s Law Center (NWLC) filed a complaint with the U.S. Office of Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) on behalf of Crosby, claiming the hospital is discriminating against Crosby based on her pregnancy by refusing the accommodation. Crosby’s other co-workers on the cleaning staff at Tallahassee Memorial Hospital had been granted similar requests and transferred to lighter duty when they had temporary physical disabilities or on-the-job injuries.  But those workers weren’t pregnant. The Pregnancy Discrimination Act requires employers like Tallahassee Memorial Hospital to make accommodations for pregnant workers when they make accommodations for workers with similar limitations.

“I had been working as a cleaner for almost a year when I was forced onto unpaid leave,” said Amy Crosby, in an interview with Rewire.  “On any given day I would clean between 22 to 30 rooms. I often lifted 25-50 pounds of linen and trash.  I was a hard worker.”

The Pregnancy Discrimination Act requires that employers treat pregnant workers as well as they treat other workers “similar in their ability or inability to work.” This means that pregnant workers who are limited in their ability to do their job because of their pregnancy cannot be treated worse than non-pregnant workers with temporary disabilities or other similar physical limitations. The Americans With Disabilities Act, as amended in 2008, requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for a broad range of temporary disabilities, including, for example, a back injury that prevents an employee from lifting 20 pounds for a few months. Because pregnant employees must be treated just as well as others with similar limitations, pregnant workers with lifting restrictions must also be provided reasonable accommodations when an employer can make the adjustments without undue hardship.

In Crosby’s case, she is able to perform nearly all of the rest of her duties and the simple accommodation would not only have kept Crosby on the job, it would save her employer money too.

According to a survey by the Job Accommodation Network, a group that works with the Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy, the majority of employers that provided accommodations to employees like Crosby reported those accommodations did not impose any new costs on them as employers. For those employers that did take on a cost associated with an employee accommodation, the majority of those employers surveyed reported that cost to be a one-time expenditure of about $500 or less. Importantly, in the case of pregnant workers, those costs are likely to be less since accommodations to pregnant workers are by their very nature temporary. Unfortunately too many employers don’t see it that way.

“Amy Crosby’s situation is not unique, and low-wage workers are particularly at risk for this kind of discrimination” said Emily Martin, NWLC Vice President and General Counsel in an interview with Rewire. “Some pregnant women across the country, and especially those working in low-wage jobs, face discrimination on the job when they need a small adjustment or accommodation that would allow them to keep working.” Martin said. “And low-wage workers are more likely to be in jobs where this comes up because those jobs are often more physically demanding.”

Martin explained that low-wage workers are also particularly vulnerable to abusive employment practices because, in a sense, the employers count on the employees not being able to stop it. “These workers are particularly at risk because it’s always harder for them to fight back. They usually can’t afford an attorney and can’t have, or can’t spend, any financial cushion they may have. Like Amy, they’re forced out on unpaid leave or simply fired, at the very moment they’re counting on their income and job security.”

The immediate impact on workers like Crosby is undeniable. Crosby spoke with Rewire just after waiting for over two hours to try to pick up food stamps to feed her family. “We’re trying to be self-sufficient,” Crosby said. “I’ve lost over two months of salary that we both counted on, I’ve used up valuable leave time that I had hoped to use after the baby was born, and now I am worried I am about to lose my job.”

Crosby’s fiance, Tom, who asked his last name not be used, called the move by the hospital a “slap in the face.” “We went from doing ok to asking, do we get the car fixed or do we buy less groceries?”

Crosby explained how she and Tom went to Burger King soon after she was forced onto unpaid leave and noticed they were hiring. Crosby asked an employee there, “Would you hire me at 23 weeks pregnant, and he said no. And I said why, and he said it’s too much of a liability.” Crosby said the whole situation “makes you feel kind of hopeless. What are we supposed to do? I can’t even get a job at Burger King.”

For Crosby all she hopes is that the hospital can make things right. “I want other women to know that they do have rights,” Crosby said.