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It's been 35 years since Congress passed the Pregnancy Discrimination Act. Today, most pregnant women work. But advocacy groups say some continue to be forced from jobs because of their condition.
NPR's Jennifer Ludden has this story on the problem and a potential solution: legislation that was introduced in Congress last month.
JENNIFER LUDDEN, BYLINE: In 2008, Natasha Jackson worked at Rent-A-Center in Charleston, cajoling customers to pay up. Occasionally, she delivered heavy rental furniture. But after she became pregnant that spring, coworkers helped out. Then...
NATASHA JACKSON: One morning, I came in and I wasn't allowed to clock in, and I was told I had to wait to clock in until I spoke to both the district manager and the head of the human resources.
LUDDEN: They told her about another pregnant employee who'd hurt herself lifting a rental TV. They put Jackson on two weeks paid vacation and sent a medical form to fill out. Her doctor wrote that, as with many pregnant women, Jackson shouldn't lift more than 20 pounds.
JACKSON: When, I guess, they read that, that's what they started to use to keep me out of work.
LUDDEN: Jackson made far more than her husband. When the head of human resources told her she'd have to go on unpaid leave, she became distraught.
JACKSON: So he told me, you know, calm down, and you still probably can get a job somewhere. Try to find a job bagging groceries or something.
DINA BAKST: We all think that pregnancy discrimination is illegal. But what has happened is the way that law has been interpreted.
LUDDEN: Dina Bakst is co-president of A Better Balance, an advocacy group that pushes for family-friendly work policies. She says courts have interpreted the Pregnancy Discrimination Act narrowly, allowing employers to deny the same kinds of accommodations they allow others for on-the-job injuries, say, a pulled muscle or broken bone.
There is another law. In 2008, Congress expanded the Americans with Disabilities Act, which now includes pregnancy-related impairments. But - and this is a point feminists have long insisted on - Bakst says normal pregnancy is not a disability.
BAKST: What pregnant women typically need are really routine, modest accommodations; an extra bathroom break, a stool, a water bottle.
LUDDEN: Simple yet sometimes denied, especially to low-wage workers.
BAKST: We recently heard from an ER doctor here in New York, after treating a pregnant worker who fainted and collapsed at her retail job because she was not allowed to drink water while standing for hours behind the cashier.
LUDDEN: To address something like that, Congress is trying yet another legislative fix: the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act. New York Congressman Jerrold Nadler recently introduced the House version.
REPRESENTATIVE JERROLD NADLER: The bill says exactly as the Americans with Disability Act says, that an employer must make a reasonable accommodation provided it's not an undue hardship.
LUDDEN: It's similar to existing state law in California and a new proposal in New York. But so far, there are no Republican co-sponsors, and business groups have declined to take a position.
GERRY MAATMAN: As a defense lawyer, I question the notion that the law needs amendment or the law has some holes in it.
LUDDEN: Gerry Maatman is with Seyfarth Shaw. He notes the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has listed pregnancy discrimination as one of its top emerging issues.
MAATMAN: A lot of enforcement dollars and effort will be undertaken by the EEOC with or without any amendments to the law. And I think that advocates are, in essence, just shining a spotlight on an issue that is certainly one that's being litigated on a daily basis in the federal courts.
LUDDEN: For sure, the legal process is helping some. Just last month, a Florida hospital settled with a housekeeper who was pushed out after she got pregnancy-induced carpal tunnel syndrome. She'll be allowed to go back to work after maternity leave. But the story is not the same for numerous others, including Natasha Jackson. She's the woman at the furniture rental company, put on leave because she couldn't lift heavy things. She never did get her job back.
JACKSON: Everything from that moment in my life took just a down spiral. I never recovered from it.
LUDDEN: She and her husband had to back out of buying their first house. They took a financial hit with her many months of unpaid leave. They're now divorcing. Jackson contested the loss of her job. But after three years, an arbitrator decided that it was perfectly legal.
Jennifer Ludden, NPR News.