While Jamie Cole’s doctor was monitoring her pregnancy because she had suffered preeclampsia with a previous one, she was still healthy. Her doctor simply told her to continue working as normal, just without heavy lifting. “The only restriction I had was lifting,” she told ThinkProgress. Given that the Sava Senior Care’s Brian Center nursing home in Weaverville, North Carolina where Cole worked is a no-lift facility that uses machines to get patients out of and back into bed, plus other workers who were put on light duty for other reasons were accommodated, she assumed she could continue with her plan to work up until she delivered her baby.
But she apparently assumed wrong. “The director told me that I couldn’t work with any restrictions,” she said. “They told me that the only way they could allow me to work would be if I had my work restrictions lifted or if I just got rid of the doctor’s note… I told her I wasn’t going to do that.” But even after her doctor changed her note to say she could do lifting so long as it wasn’t more than 35 pounds, she says the directors still refused to let her work.
Her plan was to use saved up vacation and sick time to take a eight weeks paid off after the birth of her child. Instead, she says she was forced onto unpaid leave much earlier than she wanted. And if she didn’t sign the papers to go out on unpaid Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) leave, she says she was told they couldn’t promise her job would be there for her when she came back. “It scared me,” she said. “I had two kids at home and was getting ready to bring a third one in.”
“I couldn’t understand why they were doing it to me,” she said. “I needed that job. I loved my job. I was really hurt.”
All told, she spent five and a half weeks on unpaid leave. She was allowed back to work for a week even with lifting restrictions after lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union talked to the company on her behalf, which she managed with the use of the mechanical lift and help from coworkers, but then her doctor put her on full leave because she started to experience pain. “I had to drain my savings account and checking account,” she said of her unpaid leave. “It put me more behind on everything when I could have been working that five and a half weeks.”
So she’s taken legal action, filing a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) that seeks compensation for the missed wages, legal fees, and economic and emotional damages. The Sava Senior Care Brian Center Health & Rehabilitation in Weaverville did not respond to a request for comment.
She has since resigned from her job with Sava and found one at a different facility. “I was already stressed and didn’t want to put myself back into that,” she said. She says her family is starting to catch back up financially but that some of the effects linger. Her baby, who is now six months old, still sleeps in her room. “He has his own room,” she said. “But everything that I had saved up to do the baby’s room I had to put toward bills and stuff like that.” She also ended up having to return to work earlier than she wanted, making for a rough transition back.
Beyond seeking compensation, “I would like to see them change their policies,” she said. “I’m not going to be the last woman to ever work for Sava that was pregnant.”
She’s also not likely to be the last woman to go through such an experience. An estimated quarter million women have their requests for a simple accommodation so they can keep working — such as light duty, the ability to sit, or more frequent bathroom breaks — denied each year. Yet 80 percent of first-time mothers work into their last month of pregnancy.
Women are increasingly taking legal action. Complaints like Cole’s rose 65 percent between 1992 and 2007, while nearly 6,00 were filed in 2011. The Supreme Court has heard a case against the United Parcel Service from Peggy Young, who says she was denied light duty while pregnant even though it’s given to workers for other reasons. Multiple complaints have been brought against Walmart for refusing to give pregnant workers job duty changes. Home decorating store Pier 1 is being sued by a woman who says she was forced onto unpaid leave and a grocery store is being sued by a woman who says she lost her baby after she was denied light duty.
Pregnant women also face other forms of discrimination. Employers often rely on stereotypes to fire them, such as the idea that they won’t return to work after they have their babies even though nearly 60 percent go back to work within six months of giving birth. A different nursing home is being sued by a woman who says she was fired hours after she disclosed her pregnancy, while a doughnut shop is being sued by a woman who says she was unjustly fired while on maternity leave. The Department of Justice is even suing the Chicago Board of Education for firing pregnant teachers.
This article originally appeared in thinkprogress.org on January 27, 2015. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Bryce Covert is the Economic Policy Editor for ThinkProgress. She was previously editor of the Roosevelt Institute’s Next New Deal blog and a senior communications officer. She is also a contributor for The Nation and was previously a contributor for ForbesWoman. Her writing has appeared on The New York Times, The New York Daily News, The Nation, The Atlantic, The American Prospect, and others. She is also a board member of WAM!NYC, the New York Chapter of Women, Action & the Media