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Laws fail to protect pregnant women who need special accommodations on the job

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Heather Myers was fired from her job at a Wal-Mart store in Salina, Kan., for keeping a water bottle nearby — even though she was pregnant and simply following doctor’s orders to drink plenty of liquids.

Her case is far from unique, according to a report released Tuesday by the National Women’s Law Center and A Better Balance. “It Shouldn’t Be a Heavy Lift:  Fair Treatment for Pregnant Workers” shows that many employers are refusing to make basic accommodations that they routinely give workers with disabilities or on-the-job injuries.

For example, an employee who injures his back may be allowed to stop lifting anything heavier than 20 pounds, but a pregnant woman whose doctor orders her to avoid heavy lifting? She may end up losing her job.

In Myers’ case, the 18-year-old says she was just trying to stay hydrated. At her orientation a year earlier at Wal-Mart, she says employees were told they could keep water “but no juice or pop” in a sealed container while working. Suddenly that policy “changed out of the blue” during her pregnancy, she says.

Myers was working as a sales floor associate in the infant and girls wear departments in 2007, when she was pregnant with her first child. Her duties at Wal-Mart included keeping the area stocked and putting away returns. She always had a shopping cart at her side where she could stash her water bottle, she said.

Her supervisor said Myers needed a doctor’s note if she wanted to continue having a water bottle on the job, so she complied. “I told the doctor I thought it was silly to need a note for that,” she said, but she dutifully turned the note into human resources.

That wasn’t good enough. The manager told her drinking fountains were available. “I was shocked that this became such a big issue for a pregnant woman,” Myers said. “You can’t properly hydrate just by taking a sip at a water fountain.”

She continued to carry her water bottle in a cart while she restocked shelves and took care of returns. At her next appointment, her doctor brought up the issue of water and ended up writing yet another note. By this time, Myers was suffering from urinary tract infections, so drinking a plentiful amount of water had become even more crucial for her health.

The second note went to HR, but in another day or so she was confronted by the same manager, who told her, “Either the water bottle has to go or you have to go.”

Myers left.

She contacted an attorney, who sued the retail giant on her behalf. “They just thought I was a young girl they could push around,” Myers said. “They didn’t think I would stick up for myself and my baby.”

The case was settled out of court. Myers has since moved to Lindsborg, Kan. where she works for Hospira, a pharmaceutical manufacturer. During her last pregnancy, she was able to move to an office job when standing on her feet for 12 hours straight became a health risk.

In many cases, the “special accommodations” needed by expectant moms are fairly simple: Keeping a bottle of water nearby to stay hydrated, taking more frequent bathroom breaks, avoiding lifting anything heavier than 20 pounds, working inside during hot weather or having a stool to sit on at a cashier’s job.

The amendments approved in 2008 to the American Disabilities Act were supposed to protect pregnant women in the workplace by expanding the definition of disabilities “to include temporary impairment,” like those experienced during pregnancy. The Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978, while forbidding discrimination due to pregnancy, has failed to provide protection in the workplace.

From the case studies presented in Tuesday’s report, it’s obvious that employers don’t always understand what they need to do to help pregnant workers keep working. Yet three-fourths of women in the workforce will be pregnant at some point, and more than 80 percent of them work through the last two months of pregnancy. Losing a job means losing financial support and sometimes health insurance and other benefits, and many of these women are in low-wage positions in the home health, restaurant and retail industries.

Only eight states — Alaska, California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Louisiana, Maryland and Texas — have laws to protect pregnant women.

We claim to be a family-friendly society, but as long as pregnant women need to work, the workplace should be a little more sympathetic to the physical demands and needs of the pregnant worker.

No woman should have to choose between keeping her job and protecting the health of her unborn child.