Special Delivery: Legislative Responses to Pregnancy Discrimination in the Workplace

By: Lindsay Korn

Around the world, women in the workplace continue to be discriminated and harassed for becoming pregnant or giving birth. In Japan, for example, it has been reported that nearly half of women who work under short-term contracts endure such discrimination.[1] Japan has raised concerns about the pervasiveness of maternity harassment which encouraged the health, welfare and labor ministry to conduct its first survey of attitudes towards working women who become pregnant or take time off in order to have children.[2] About 3,500 women aged 24-44 participated in the survey and the results showed that about 21.8% of these full-time employees were subjected to unfair treatment and verbal abuse because of their pregnancies.[3] In 2010, a reported 46% of women stayed at work after having their first child, compared with 32% and over the past six years, the number of maternity harassment complaints has risen 18%.[4]

In other parts of the world such as in the UK, it is estimated that about 54,000 pregnant women are forced out of their jobs every year.[5] Joeli Brearley founded the online project Pregnant Then Screwed which is a platform allowing women to anonymously submit experiences of discrimination in the workplace in relation to their pregnancies.[6] The project has recorded more than five hundred stories across the UK and US finding that some of these women do not seek legal remedies because the stress of a lawsuit is overwhelming as is the first months of pregnancy and motherhood.[7] Another challenge is that when women are victims of discrimination, they do not want to talk about it publicly.[8] They are “scared they will be branded a trouble-maker and that speaking out will turn potential future employers off.”[9]

In the United States, even though the U.S. EEOC enacted the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) forbidding discrimination “based on pregnancy when it comes to any aspect of employment, including hiring, firing, pay, job assignments, promotions, layoff, training, fringe benefits, such as leave and health insurance, and any other term or condition of employment,” many women still worry that their pregnancies may harm their careers.[10] For instance, in a recent suit, Tomeldon Company Inc., which does business as Pharmacy Solutions, allegedly violated the federal law by firing two pregnant employees a month after the company owner made negative comments about their pregnancies.[11] Robert A. Canino, the regional attorney of EEOC’s Dallas District Office stated, “It is unfortunate that in a medical-related business like a pharmacy, there would still be such an outdated approach to pregnancy in the workplace.”

It seems that many employers continue to use an “outdated approach” to pregnancy in the workplace.[12] According to Joeli Brearley’s results, lawsuits cannot be the only remedies for pregnant women, especially since many of them do not want to file suits.[13]  In order to increase women’s participation in the workforce, countries like Malaysia are calling for legislation that prohibits employers from asking job candidates if they are pregnant.[14] In Japan, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe responded to a study’s finding that about sixty percent of women quit work when they have their first child.[15] Kato is now calling for “clearer rules for irregular workers to take childcare leave and said the government will introduce legal changes to encourage equal treatment of full and part-time workers if necessary.”[16] Further, during the U.S. 2016 short legislative session, bills ensuring workplace accommodation for pregnant women “stand a chance of passing this year.”[17]

On February 16, 2016, a bill passed the Senate unanimously giving pregnant Washington women more protections in the workplace.[18] The legislation requires employers to make “reasonable accommodations” for its pregnant employees, such as more frequent bathroom or meal breaks, and limits on lifting more than twenty pounds.[19] Though the National Federation of Independent Business initially opposed this legislation, it now supports the Senate’s amending the pregnancy accommodation bill in order to assist working mothers “without creating undue hardships on their employer or co-workers.”[20] The NFIB also hopes this “reasonable compromise and common-sense approach will also be approved by the House.”[21]

[1] Justin McCurry, Japanese Women Suffer Widespread ‘Maternity Harassment’ at Work (Nov. 18, 2015 3:29 PM), http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/nov/18/japanese-women-suffer-widespread-maternity-harassment-at-work.

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Siobhan Fenton, Pregnant Then Screwed- The Women Fighting Back Against Pregnancy Discrimination At Work (Feb. 18, 2016), http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/pregnant-then-screwed-the-women-fighting-back-against-pregnancy-discrimination-at-work-a6881786.html

[6] Id.

[7] Id. (“For most women, pregnancy or the first few months of motherhood is the most physically and mentally draining time of your life and the additional stress of taking on legal action is often too much to comprehend. Therefore many women are put off trying to seek justice by the prospect of months of exhausting tribunal processes.”).

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] Pregnancy Discrimination Act, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e (1978); Mark Iandolo, EEOC, Pharmacy Solutions Reach $85,000 Deal Resolving Pregnancy Discrimination Allegations (Feb. 19, 2016, 1:29 PM), http://legalnewsline.com/stories/510664471-eeoc-pharmacy-solutions-reach-85-000-deal-resolving-pregnancy-discrimination-allegations.

[11] Iandolo supra note 10.

[12] Id.

[13] Fenton supra note 5.

[14] Wanita MCA Wants Pregnancy Discrimination Laws, (Feb. 19, 2016, 4:04 PM), http://www.themalaymailonline.com/malaysia/article/wanita-mca-wants-pregnancy-discrimination-laws

[15] Isabel Reynolds, Stop Harassing Pregnant Women in Workplace, Japan Minister Says (Feb. 12, 2016, 6:53 AM), http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-02-12/stop-harassing-pregnant-women-in-workplace-japan-minister-says

[16] Id.

[17] Allegra Ambramo, Lawmakers Target Birth Control, Pregnancy and Maternal Deaths (Feb. 19, 2016 5:27 AM), http://www.thenewstribune.com/news/politics-government/article61351777.html#storylink=cpy.

[18] Id.

[19] Id. (“Retaliating against employees seeking accommodations also would be prohibited”). Id.

[20] Id.

[21] Id.



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