Kroger Faces Potential Class-Action for Discriminating Against Pregnant Women

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Analysis Human Rights

Kroger Faces Potential Class-Action for Discriminating Against Pregnant Women

Auditi Guha

“Kroger thinks it's perfectly legal to treat pregnant workers like second-class citizens,” said Dina Bakst, co-founder and co-president of A Better Balance. “This is not only shameful—but illegal."

Jessica Craddock of Nashville was shocked when the the grocery store she had worked at for two years refused to make accommodations for a difficult pregnancy in 2014.

“I just needed to avoid heavy lifting so that I could stay healthy,” she said in a news release from A Better Balance, a national legal advocacy organization promoting fairness in the workplace. “They put me on unpaid leave so I … had to go without income when I needed it the most,” Craddock, now 24, said. 

In a class action lawsuit filed last month by A Better Balance in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee, Craddock is seeking a policy change to allow pregnant Kroger employees to receive similar workplace accommodations that injured workers already receive at the grocery chain, which is one of the country’s largest employers.

This case is filed against Kroger Greater Tennessee Division, which consists of at least 90 stores with more than 12,000 employees, according to court documents.

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Although she felt it wasn’t safe, Craddock said she was doing some heavy lifting in her pregnancy because she was afraid of losing her job. But when there were complications, she provided a doctor’s note indicating that she should not lift more than ten pounds.

The store manager told her she could not be accommodated because Kroger’s policy did not allow employees to work with medical restrictions, with an exception for “on-the-job injuries—workers compensation,” the complaint states. 

Craddock was pushed out of her job into taking unpaid leave, according to the complaint.

The suit claims that the company’s policy violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended by the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, which states that “women affected by pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions shall be treated the same for all employment-related purposes … as other persons not so affected but similar in their ability or inability to work.”

The company’s Tennessee division policy imposes “a significant burden on pregnant workers who rely upon income from work to provide for themselves and their families,” the complaint states.

Kroger’s discriminatory policy and practice puts many pregnant workers on unpaid leave, short-term disability with lesser pay, or deprives them of their jobs altogether, says the complaint. Others must risk their health for fear of losing income during a critical period.

“Pregnant workers at Kroger should not have to choose between their health and their careers,” the complaint states.

“Kroger thinks it’s perfectly legal to treat pregnant workers like second-class citizens,” said Dina Bakst, co-founder and co-president of A Better Balance, in the release. “This is not only shameful—but illegal.”

Most pregnant women do not need much accommodation except maybe some breaks, less heavy lifting, or a stool to sit down from time to time. “That’s not a lot to ask for,” said Elizabeth Gedmark, director of the southern office of A Better Balance, to Rewire. “This is a public health issue and concerns family and women’s health. You would think that one of the largest companies in the country would step up.”

Moreover, policies such as Kroger’s disproportionately affect low-wage women and women of color. “Those who can afford it the least are hit the hardest,” she said.

Tennessee has the highest percentage of minimum wage-workers in the country. Women of color dominate these jobs and pregnancy discrimination is most common in low-wage jobs, according to Allison Glass, state director of the coalition Healthy and Free TN, which works to ensure that the policies legislators introduce in Nashville meet the needs of Tennessee women.

“Women are the head family earners for a large percentage of families across the country and they need to be supported and not discriminated against at work, especially when pregnant and planning to expand their family,” she told Rewire.

Decades after the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, courts across the country are seeing cases like this one, especially those involving pregnant women in physically demanding jobs like UPS and other retail, food service, and policing, Gedmark said.

“Accommodations for pregnant women at work is an issue that impacts all women, regardless of race or socioeconomic level,” said Liz Morris, deputy director of the Center for WorkLife Law and law professor at University of California in an emailed comment to Rewire. “Data show that low-wage earners and women of color are more likely to need an accommodation at work, and these women are more vulnerable in the workplace during pregnancy as a result.”

In Craddock’s case, she lost her apartment and had to move in with her mother, Gedmark said.

After she was placed on unpaid leave, Craddock filed a charge of discrimination under Title VII and the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, and the Americans with Disabilities Act and its Amendments Act, with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in Nashville, in May 2014.

The company responded that an “inadvertent mistake” had been made and allowed her to return to work, according to the lawsuit. The June 3 letter said Craddock was “mistakenly placed … on a leave of absence.” Craddock continues to work at Kroger.

“Kroger allowed her to return to work after A Better Balance intervened but they still have not changed their policy. It is really unjust and unfair,” Gedmark said to Rewire. “Unfortunately it shows that companies don’t value their female workforce enough.”

While Craddock and others like her remain subject to the company’s policies, some see the lawsuit filing as significant.

“The beauty of the class-action lawsuit brought by a Better Balance is that a single woman who has faced discrimination is seeking relief for other women who have faced—or will in the future face—similar unlawful treatment,” Morris told Rewire. “By stepping forward and speaking out on behalf of her coworkers who have also been discriminated against when they became pregnant, Ms. Craddock can secure protection for other women who may be afraid to come forward.”

“This lawsuit shows big companies that they can’t take their workers for granted and shirk the law, especially when it comes to pregnant workers,” said Glass. “We should be supporting families and our economy, not discriminating against women who are working and pregnant.”