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For some pregnant women and new mothers, the workplace has become a more understanding environment. Companies are offering lactation rooms and more liberal maternity and paternity leave policies. Still, many others are finding that pregnancy can be a career liability. Rules requiring accommodations are not at all specific, and advocates say more laws are necessary.
NPR's Yuki Noguchi reports.
YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: Heather Myers was fresh out of high school and working at a Walmart in Salina, Kan., in 2006, when she found out she was pregnant. She kept a water bottle with her on the sales floor, as her doctor recommended. Then, her supervisor intervened.
HEATHER MYERS: She said: I'm sorry, but we can't accept your doctor's note because we have water available to you because you have the water fountains available to you.
NOGUCHI: So Myers got a second doctor's note but the supervisor rejected that, too.
MYERS: I was just a little shocked that this water bottle was kind of becoming this big deal. And they were even scrutinizing my doctor's notes.
NOGUCHI: Myers held firm.
MYERS: I decided to go against what my supervisor suggested, and listen to my doctor and to my body, and decided to keep the water bottle. And one day that supervisor came up to me, and she said: Either the water bottle has to go or you have to go.
NOGUCHI: Myers was fired. She sued and later settled out of court. Last month, Walmart - under pressure from other women - amended its policy, saying it will take reasonable measures to accommodate temporary disability caused by pregnancy.
Thirty-six years after Congress passed the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, there is still a debate about what employers are required to do for expectant mothers. In recent months, New Jersey, West Virginia, New York City and Philadelphia have passed laws explicitly requiring employers to reasonably accommodate pregnant workers. And there are similar proposals in several other states and the U.S. Congress.
Some in the business community support such laws. But some, like the Illinois Chamber of Commerce, say these laws create legal confusion for businesses that also have to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act and other laws.
Jeffrey Risch chairs the Employment Law Council for the chamber.
JEFFREY RISCH: It's going to be both costly and confusing.
NOGUCHI: Especially, he says, for small businesses. Emily Martin disagrees. She is general counsel for the National Women's Law Center.
EMILY MARTIN: Unfortunately, a lot of employers don't understand that they have legal obligations.
NOGUCHI: Which is why, Martin says, the law needs more clarity. She says employers that don't comply are often in the low-wage professions like retail, restaurants; or in male-dominated industries.
MARTIN: Truck driving or policing, those are also workplaces that are both physically demanding and that may have a culture of some hostility to women being on the job at all.
NOGUCHI: Take the case of Peggy Young. She had an early delivery shift for UPS in Maryland when she got pregnant in 2006. She says the staff nurse told her to get a doctor's note, which said Young should avoid lifting objects heavier than 20 pounds.
PEGGY YOUNG: But when I took the note into the nurse, she basically said: Well, we don't give alternative work or light duty to off-work incidents. I'm like, I'm pregnant; there's not an incident here.
NOGUCHI: Young tells her story at an Olive Garden, where she now waitresses. She says she knew UPS had reassigned some co-workers because of high blood pressure or drunk-driving offenses. So she petitioned her manager to allow her to continue working.
YOUNG: And he pretty much said, you're too much of a liability in our building; don't come back until you're no longer pregnant. I just kind of looked at him like, are you serious? Like, I can't work? And he was like, no - wouldn't let me.
NOGUCHI: Young sued UPS. Two lower courts ruled against her so now, she's petitioning the Supreme Court. UPS spokeswoman Susan Rosenberg says the lower court rulings show the company's policy is consistent with the law. In cases of medical need, the company accommodates workers, but pregnancy is not given special treatment.
SUSAN ROSENBERG: The courts determined that UPS policy is pregnancy blind.
NOGUCHI: Young and her attorneys are waiting to see whether the high court will hear her case. Yuki Noguchi, NPR News, Washington.
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