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.”
Webb had planned to keep working through her pregnancy and then return to AT&T when her maternity leave ended. But one morning she fainted as she was getting ready for work. Her husband took her to the emergency room, where she was told that she was very dehydrated and kept for the morning to get fluids. She knew that AT&T Mobility’s absence policy required notifying managers at least an hour before missing a shift, so as her husband drove her to the hospital she texted her manager and tried to report the situation using an app on her phone. “Having such a strict policy as you’re on your way to the emergency room, and you have to try to log in to an app to let your work know that you can’t make it—it’s really stressful,” she said. Still, she added, “I never imagined that I would get the points for being in the hospital.”
By “points,” Webb meant the system that AT&T Mobility uses for absences, which assigns a fraction of a point to a full point when an employee comes in late, leaves early, or misses a full shift. The penalty kicks in as soon as someone is late by as little as five minutes. After accumulating four points, an employee may lose out on a promotion or the ability to transfer to another store. After eight points, that employee will be fired. Points stay on someone’s record for a year. Absences, late arrivals, and early departures are considered excused only if they fall under one of 13 categories, which include approved vacation, recognized holidays, jury duty, military leave, and court subpoenas. There is no provision for sick leave, except in states or localities where it’s required by the government. Handing in a doctor’s note might not excuse an employee from getting a point.
Despite letting her managers know about her absence an hour before her shift began, Webb said she was still given a full point. She was told that the only way to have her absence excused would be to file paperwork under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which allows workers to take unpaid, intermittent leave related to pregnancy without penalty. Although she filed that paperwork, the point was added to her record. As her pregnancy progressed, Webb attempted to avoid further points by forcing herself to go to work even when she felt sick, only to run to the bathroom every 10 or 15 minutes to vomit. On days when she was helping customers, that meant asking another manager to take over while she excused herself. They “made it seem like it was a burden on them to have to do that,” she said.
About a month into her pregnancy, “it was a different atmosphere. I definitely felt like I was being almost targeted.” Her managers’ attitudes seemed to have changed; she got curt replies or was told they were too busy to help her with work-related questions. “I had always had such a good experience working there—I always had good performance reviews, we were just discussing possibly advancing within the company—and then all of a sudden, it was just a complete turnaround,” she said. “My work ethic didn’t change. Performancewise, nothing had changed. So to me, it was very apparent that it was because I was pregnant.”
The changes took a toll. “It went from a job that I absolutely loved and I thought that I was going to make a career out of into something that you wake up every day and have to talk yourself into wanting to go to work.” But she didn’t have many options other than to tough it out. “Quitting a job when you’re seven, eight months pregnant—financially, I didn’t know if we would be able to do it,” she said.
Eventually Webb realized she didn’t have a choice. By June, she said, she had accumulated enough points to be fired. Seeing the writing on the wall, she decided she had to find another job. She got one with Cricket Wireless, at about half the pay she was earning with AT&T. She put in her two weeks’ notice, but, she said, her manager told her that the company wouldn’t accept it and had decided to fire her instead. Because she “pointed out,” she’s ineligible to be hired by AT&T Mobility ever again. Webb left the store in tears. “To work there for three years and have great relationships with everybody and then for that to completely change in seven months—I don’t even know if I have words to explain that,” she said. Pregnancy is “something that you should enjoy the best you can, and it should be something that’s really special for you and your family. And I felt like a lot of that was taken away from me.”
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.”
In response to a request for comment, an AT&T spokesperson said, “The facts don’t support this lawsuit, and we deny the allegations. We do not tolerate discrimination of any kind, including for an employee’s gender or pregnancy.”
The fact that AT&T Mobility’s list of approved reasons for absences doesn’t mention pregnancy points to the larger issue. Women make up about half the workforce. Almost 85 percent will become mothers during their working lives. And yet pregnancy at work is regularly treated as an aberration from the norm. “Workplaces…are constructed around the ideal worker, which is the male worker,” Thomas explained. “That it’s just not even taken into account in these workplaces is a huge lacuna in our public consciousness.”
All pregnant workers will need at least some time away from work for prenatal doctor appointments. Many others experience complications that require emergency medical care. But these needs are often met with a penalty. “Pregnant women who have gone for just a day or two to the hospital come back to find out that they lost their jobs,” said Dina Bakst, a copresident of A Better Balance, an organization that promotes better leave policies. “They lose their health insurance, lose their jobs, end up sleeping on somebody’s couch.”
So-called no-fault attendance policies are common for “clock in/clock out jobs,” Thomas said. Until recently, Walmart, the country’s largest private-sector employer, had a no-fault attendance policy. A Better Balance brought a class-action lawsuit last summer on behalf of two people who were fired after being told that absences for visits to the hospital to care for their pregnancies were unauthorized. In February, Walmart announced that it would change its policy so that pregnancy-related absences would generally not result in points—the first “major victory,” Bakst said, against a strict absence policy on the basis of its impact on pregnant workers.
Some no-fault attendance policies should excuse short pregnancy-related absences under the FMLA. But to be eligible for leave under that law, an employee must work for a business with 50 or more employees and must have been on the job for at least a year. That excludes 44 percent of private-sector workers. And as Webb can attest, the confusing policy landscape means that even when employees are covered, their requests for FMLA leave are not always successful. When they are, employees may find that they’re eating into the precious 12 weeks of maternity leave they may have wanted to use after their child arrives. Some may end up with no leave at all by the time they go home with a newborn.
Pregnancy discrimination rears its head in every sector of the economy, from law firms, tech companies, and banks to fast-food chains and retailers. Studies show that pregnant women are perceived as unreliable and mothers are seen as less competent; unsurprisingly, then, women file claims of pregnancy discrimination in every industry. Some are simply fired after telling their employers they’re pregnant. That’s illegal but common. According to a review of Equal Employment Opportunity Commission data done by the National Partnership for Women & Families, being fired is the reason cited most frequently by workers filing charges of pregnancy discrimination. Others were refused jobs or promotions.
But in service-sector jobs, the discrimination that pregnant workers face is not just about asking whether someone is getting on the so-called mommy track at work. It’s wrapped up with the overall disempowerment most employees face. “Low-wage workers are often seen as expendable and interchangeable in a way that highly compensated professionals are not,” said Liz Morris, the deputy director of the Center for WorkLife Law. So a pregnant woman’s request for a small change in her schedule or working conditions may be met with a no—or worse, retaliation. “You have less power in the workplace and less bargaining authority,” she added, “because there is a perception that if you’re not willing to do it without complaining, somebody else will be.”
Policies in low-wage workplaces often leave little wiggle room to arrive a bit late, take extra bathroom breaks, or drink more water. Low-wage workers like Webb “don’t have a lot of autonomy or control over when, where, and how they do the work,” Morris noted. “They’re often under strict work restrictions in a way that a professional who works in an office environment…is not.”
And yet such workplaces are where many pregnant workers are employed. According to a new report from the National Women’s Law Center, more than one-fifth of pregnant workers hold low-wage jobs, such as retail cashiers and salespeople, restaurant servers, customer-service representatives, and cleaners. These jobs tend to be more physically demanding, requiring a lot of being on one’s feet or lifting heavy objects. The center reports that many of the jobs most commonly held by pregnant workers require long periods of standing and continuous repetitive motion, which can trigger health consequences in pregnancy.
Pregnancy discrimination appears to be particularly prevalent in low-wage, service-sector industries. The complaints filed with the EEOC that name an industry were concentrated in low-wage sectors, including retail, accommodation and food services, and administrative services. According to data the agency shared with The Nation, from 2013 to 2018 those three sectors consistently accounted for about a third of complaints in which the industry was given. Retail was second only to health care and social assistance (including social workers and child care workers) every year.
Betzaida Cruz Cardona didn’t think her doctor’s note saying she shouldn’t lift more than 25 pounds would interfere with her work as a cashier at Savers in Henrietta, New York. But a half hour after she gave it to her manager—adding that she wanted to keep working—she was fired and told she should “stay home and take care of [her] pregnancy,” she said. She wound up homeless, moving between family members’ and friends’ houses while 32 weeks pregnant.
Courtnee Dean was fired from her job at Olive Garden in Philadelphia, supposedly for losing a coupon, shortly after informing her manager that she was pregnant. She struggled to find another job; then she ran out of unemployment benefits. “I’m the full provider for my family,” she told ThinkProgress. The job “was how I made my money.”
Although Reyna García, who sued the California grocery chain Albertson’s in 2013, showed her managers three doctor’s notes that recommended that she should have her job duties restricted because of a high-risk pregnancy, she alleged that she was made to keep lifting heavy goods and climbing ladders. One day she experienced pain and asked to leave work early, but her request was denied, and she continued to do heavy lifting. She went into labor that night and was rushed to the hospital, where she gave birth to a baby who lived only a few minutes. According to her lawsuit, her baby’s death “was the most painful thing Ms. García had ever experienced.”
Peggy Young was working as a United Parcel Service driver in Landover, Maryland, when she became pregnant. Her doctor prescribed a light-duty job, but the company forced her to take unpaid leave rather than shift her responsibilities. Yet UPS provided such accommodations to employees with other medical conditions and even for those who had DUI convictions. Young filed a lawsuit that made it to the Supreme Court, which in 2015 ruled in her favor.
It was a victory for Young, but it did little to address the larger scourge of pregnancy discrimination. The Young v. UPS decision set a standard in which plaintiffs must prove that a company provided a similar accommodation to another employee in order to get one themselves. When employers refuse to make such accommodations, women can press their rights in court, but the Young standard has proved difficult to meet. In a recent review of cases brought after the decision, A Better Balance found that in two-thirds of the cases, judges held that employers were legally able to deny pregnant workers accommodations.
Even when a lawsuit provides some measure of justice and financial payback, those remedies often come too late. “Most women just want to be able to get the accommodation they need to stay healthy and on the job,” Bakst said. “By the time they litigate, it takes months, it takes years.” And by that point, the women may have already lost their job, their income, their health insurance, and their financial security. “It actually snowballs and compounds into lasting economic disadvantage…because they’re not able to stay attached to the workforce.”
Just like Webb, Cynthia Allen enjoyed her job at various AT&T Mobility stores in New York City. She found it exciting to work with technology, and the pay and hours were great. “I was one of those [who] would open and close if needed just because I enjoyed what I did,” she said.
The first time she became pregnant, she suffered a miscarriage, requiring her to spend time in the hospital. Her second pregnancy ended the same way. At the time, she was able to get excused for all the work hours she missed.
But things had changed by 2016, when Allen became pregnant a third time. She developed hyperemesis gravidarum and other complications, landing her in and out of the hospital. “For me, it was very frustrating because I’m this person that’s used to working, working, working,” she said. “I was just worried [about] what’s going on at work and how I’m going to pay bills with me taking all this time off.” But she said she didn’t think things would be different from her first two pregnancies. She went through the same steps as before to get excused for the days she had to take off. But, she said, the company never told her she was accruing points.
It wasn’t until she transferred from her store in New York City to one in Las Vegas to be near her mother that Allen found out otherwise. She was given a write-up and called into her manager’s office one day for having accrued so many points. Allen, who said she had never gotten a write-up before, was confused. “I’m like, ‘I never get in trouble, and this is something that’s going to be on my employee record,’ ” she remembered thinking. “I actually had to take a moment to myself and kind of cry.” Eventually she started using unpaid FMLA leave early to avoid getting more points.
When she returned to work after maternity leave, Allen was told that she had accrued 18 points and was put on final notice, she alleged. But she still needed to take time off to care for her son, who had a variety of health issues, including severe eczema, asthma, and fevers. “I have a legitimate reason [to be absent]—my son’s in the freaking hospital,” she said. “It’s just common sense.”
She arranged with her manager to make up the time she took off by working other shifts. She brought in doctor’s notes and the hospital discharge papers for her son and tried to file for FMLA leave. None of it worked. Three weeks after her son went to the hospital, Allen was fired for her absences. “I honestly didn’t expect it until the day that [my manager] brought me and another manager into the room,” she said. “And that’s when I knew that I was going to get fired.”
That meant she lost her income just as she was trying to figure out how, as a single mother, she would pay for all of her son’s medications and medical bills on top of regular expenses like day care and diapers. Like Webb, Allen was able to land another job, although she, too, had to take a big cut in pay. “I kind of went into debt,” she said. “It was really a struggle.” She nearly lost her car, and she had to switch her son to a less expensive day care center.
Allen wasn’t able to catch up financially until she moved in with her father in Ohio. While she’s now working at a job that she loves in the psychiatry clinic at a children’s hospital, she can’t afford to live on her own.
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.
Policy solutions can help push things forward. Twenty-seven states have enacted legislation, often dubbed Pregnant Workers Fairness Acts, that require employers to give pregnant employees reasonable accommodations so that they can keep working—rather than requiring employees to prove first that the employer would have made the accommodation for an employee with a disability. When lawmakers in South Dakota debated a pregnancy accommodation bill in 2017, one of the Republicans offered a different solution. “It’s not prison. You can quit,” said state Senator Wayne H. Steinhauer. But these state-level laws have succeeded in red states like Kentucky and South Carolina as well as deep blue ones, passing with bipartisan support. Anti-abortion-rights organizations filed an amicus brief in support of Peggy Young in the Young v. UPS case.
And it’s clear that once on the books, the laws work. A Better Balance has seen a reduction in pregnancy discrimination litigation in many of the states with such laws. “Providing an explicit right to accommodation…makes it easier for pregnant women to receive the accommodation they need without having to litigate,” Bakst pointed out.
A federal version of the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act was introduced in Congress in 2012. In 2015 it garnered some Republican support—from then-Senators Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Dean Heller of Nevada—for the first time. But the bill has never had a hearing. It was reintroduced this past May, but no further action followed.
Webb was working at Cricket when her son was born. But the steep pay cut and the lack of paid maternity leave was tough on her family. “It was definitely a very, very stressful time for me and my husband,” she said. They decided to move to Iowa to be close to family when her son was 2 months old.
Webb had her second child about a month and a half ago. While she again developed hyperemesis gravidarum, her experience with her employer was very different. She was working for a small pharmacy part-time as a technician. “They were so, so understanding,” she said. They worked with her to provide what she needed to stay on the job. “I wouldn’t even have to ask for a chair. They would have one sitting there waiting for me. The experience [was] night and day from what I went through at AT&T.” When she needed to be absent to take care of her health, “they were more than understanding,” she said. There were times when she went to work but, because her coworkers could see how poorly she felt, they told her to go home.
Webb is still recovering from what she went through at AT&T. She had come up with a life plan there: career advancement at a company where she loved working. All of that came crashing down when she got pregnant. She’s trying to figure out what she wants to do with the rest of her life; while she enjoys her job at the pharmacy, she said it isn’t fulfilling enough to stay there long-term.
“You almost feel disappointed in yourself,” she said. “It makes you feel like a failure because you have to start over, and you have to try to plan for the rest of your life the best that you can.”