Two Legal Settlements Highlight Pervasive Problem of Pregnancy Discrimination

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Two Legal Settlements Highlight Pervasive Problem of Pregnancy Discrimination

Jessica Mason Pieklo

In both the academic and the private sector, pregnancy discrimination is a drag on individual and familial success.

The National Women’s Law Center (NWLC) today announced settlements in two cases that, when taken together, show the widespread and pervasive problem of pregnancy discrimination.

The first settlement involved a complaint filed on behalf of a 27-year-old student at the City University of New York (CUNY). According to the complaint, CUNY violated Title IX, the federal law that prohibits sex discrimination in education, when one of its professors told Stephanie Stewart, an honors student and recipient of an academic scholarship, that she would not be allowed to make up tests or assignments resulting from any pregnancy-related absences, including labor and delivery. Despite the fact that Title IX prohibits schools from penalizing pregnant students for medically necessary absences, the dean and other administrators declined to intervene on Stewart’s behalf and recommended instead that she drop the class since she was due to deliver her baby before the end of the term.

The initial complaint, filed with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, also detailed the retaliation Stewart experienced after challenging the policy, including receiving an academic warning from the professor in question immediately after she filed her complaint; she was later cleared of the academic warning.

In the settlement, CUNY has agreed to adopt a new university-wide policy addressing the rights of pregnant and parenting students under Title IX, publish and disseminate that policy to its faculty, conduct training so that faculty members understand their obligations, and include the policy in the student handbook. CUNY also agreed to reinstate Stewart’s full-tuition scholarship and reimburse her for expenses she incurred taking an extra course this semester in order to graduate on time. The settlement will protect the rights of tens of thousands of parents and pregnant students in this sprawling New York City college system.

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The entire CUNY system—spanning all five boroughs of New York City—has over 269,000 students this year. Women account for 58.4 percent of that student population, while approximately 15 percent of the student body are parents. But the national dropout rates among pregnant and parenting students are stark: 61 percent of women who have children after enrolling in community college do not graduate. This number is 65 percent higher than for women who do not have children while in college.

“I’m thrilled that CUNY will institute a comprehensive policy that’s designed to protect the rights of pregnant and parenting students like me,” said Stewart in a statement. “I hope that this positive example will inspire other colleges across the country to do the same.  There are thousands of students as determined as I am to set a secure path and bright future for their children and themselves, and we all deserve that chance.”

The second settlement involved claims between Tallahassee Memorial Hospital and Amy Crosby, a 30-year-old pregnant hospital cleaner in Tallahassee, Florida. NWLC filed a complaint last month with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) on Crosby’s behalf after Crosby was forced to take unpaid leave when the hospital refused to accommodate her doctor’s request that she not lift more than 20 pounds because of her pregnancy.

 “We are encouraged that the hospital and Amy Crosby have been able to resolve this matter,” Emily Martin, NWLC vice president and general counsel, said in a statement. “While the specific terms of the agreement are confidential, we are very pleased that as a result of their cooperation, Amy will be able to continue to work at the hospital. But it’s important to take note of the countless other pregnant women across the country—especially those working in low-wage jobs—who face discrimination on the job when they simply need a small adjustment or accommodation that would allow them to keep working. These women are often forced out on unpaid leave or simply fired, at the very moment they’re relying on their income and job security.”

As her EEOC complaint explained, Crosby was 23-weeks pregnant when she asked the hospital to accommodate a doctor-imposed lifting restriction, but the hospital refused and instead forced her into unpaid leave. The Pregnancy Discrimination Act requires employers to make accommodations for pregnant workers when they make accommodations for workers with similar limitations. Other co-workers on the cleaning staff at Tallahassee Memorial Hospital were granted similar requests and transferred to lighter duty when they had temporary physical disabilities or on-the-job injuries, but Crosby’s supervisor told her that the hospital does not make accommodations for its pregnant workers. Despite her desire to continue working with an adjustment in her job duties, Crosby was sent home on unpaid leave the same day she made her request and was later informed that she would be terminated if she did not return to work without restrictions by April 11, more than a month before her due date.

“I’m relieved that the hospital and I were able to work together to come to a good resolution and as a result, my job is secure,” said Crosby in a statement. “This has given me peace of mind that will allow me to prepare for my baby’s birth next month. But I worry that other women in a similar situation will have no place to turn. I look forward to the day when no pregnant woman has to go through what I went through.”

The Pregnancy Discrimination Act requires employers to extend the accommodations they provide workers with disabilities to their pregnant employees. 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 the same 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.

While the cases involved very different circumstances and legal claims—Title IX violations versus violations of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act—the underlying facts of both cases are disturbingly similar. In both cases the plaintiffs were models of good behavior, playing by the rules and excelling, despite numerous challenges in front of them. Yet in both cases institutional biases took over and tried to derail them and could very easily have succeeded if not for the combined determination of the women at the center of the complaints and the allies working on their behalf.