Should employers be held responsible for miscarriages at work? | The Tylt

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A New York Times investigation revealed that a number of employers are ignoring requests from pregnant workers for less strenuous work. In many cases, these denials have resulted in major health problems, including miscarriages and birth defects. Some claim this is pregnancy discrimination, and employers need to answer for their actions. Others look to the law for insight, which doesn't technically require employers to accommodate these kinds of requests. Are employers liable?

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Pregnancy discrimination occurs when women are barred from certain activities due to their pregnancy, particularly when at work. For many women, as soon as their pregnancy starts to show physically, the way their supervisors and co-workers view them shifts dramatically–a change that often lasts for years after the pregnancy ends. The New York Times's Natalie Kitroeff and Jessica Silver-Greenberg put it in plain terms:

 Whether women work at Walmart or on Wall Street, getting pregnant is often the moment they are knocked off the professional ladder.

For women working in physically-demanding environments, the consequences of this discrimination can be dire. Requests for lighter lifting, water breaks, time off of one's feet and more are often denied by employers. Heavy lifting, in particular, is a known cause of poor pregnancy outcomes–miscarriage included–yet many employers make no effort to shift pregnant workers' responsibilities to safer activities. 

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However tragic the circumstances may be, employers rejecting requests for different work for pregnant women are are acting well within the confines of the law. The New York Times reports:

Under federal law, companies don’t necessarily have to adjust pregnant women’s jobs, even when lighter work is available and their doctors send letters urging a reprieve.
The Pregnancy Discrimination Act is the only federal law aimed at protecting expecting mothers at work. It is four paragraphs long and 40 years old. It says that a company has to accommodate pregnant workers’ requests only if it is already doing so for other employees who are 'similar in their ability or inability to work.'

Again, these situations may be tragic, but employers cannot and should not be held liable for poor pregnancy outcomes. As business leaders, if supervisors feel that they cannot alter pregnant employees' work in order to meet their and the company's needs, they don't have to. 

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A New York Times investigation confirmed that this kind of pregnancy discrimination often leads to poor pregnancy outcomes. Kitroeff and Silver-Greenberg return to explain 23-year-old Erica Hayes' story. Hayes suffered a miscarriage while at work and due to the type of work she was performing: 

[Hayes] was 23 and in the second trimester of her first pregnancy. She had spent much of the week hoisting the warehouse’s largest boxes from one conveyor belt to the next. Ever since she learned she was pregnant, she had been begging her supervisor to let her work with lighter boxes, she said in an interview. She said her boss repeatedly said no.

According to the investigation, three other women working in the same warehouses had miscarriages in the same year. All had requested lighter duty. All presented doctors' notes with recommendations for "less taxing workloads and shorter shifts." And all requests were disregarded.

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In 2015, a pregnancy discrimination case reached the Supreme Court. Yet again, a pregnant woman, Peggy Young, was denied her request for lighter duties after her doctor recommended that she avoided lifting heavy items. Young sued her employer, UPS, under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, but her case was dismissed by the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in Richmond, Va.

The New York Times's Adam Liptak reports: 

'One may characterize the UPS policy as insufficiently charitable,' Judge Allyson Kay Duncan wrote for that court, 'but a lack of charity does not amount to discriminatory animus directed at a protected class of employees.'

Essentially, the Virgina Court of Appeals acknowledges that UPS’s policy is harsh, but does not amount to discrimination. In its opinion, UPS is not liable. Harvard Business Review'sLiz Morris, Cynthia Thomas Calvert, and Joan C. Williams explain the Supreme Court's findings:

The Court’s decision in 'Young v. UPS' holds that there may be some situations in which employers can accommodate some groups of employees, without also accommodating pregnant employees,
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Another woman gave her supervisor a doctor's letter saying she should not lift more than 15 pounds. The pregnant employee, Ceeadria Walker, regularly lifted heavier items in her warehouse job than she was supposed to, and suffered a miscarriage because of it. 

According to her own employee handbook: 

...taking unapproved breaks, arriving to work late or leaving early can result in 'immediate termination,' unless the reasons for the departures are 'legally protected.' The Pregnancy Discrimination Act does not guarantee women such protections.

Meaning, Walker had to choose between keeping her job and listening to her doctor. When a job provides essential medical benefits and steady wages, the former often wins out. Employers making their employees choose between their jobs and the safety of their unborn children should also be held responsible for the poor health of those children.

Rebecca Jackson, the chief of obstetrics and gynecology at San Francisco General Hospital, commented on the situation, saying: 

'When employers ignore these medical recommendations, they are potentially jeopardizing patients’ health. It’s especially bothersome to me that this is occurring for women in strenuous jobs, given that they are at the most risk of injuring themselves or the pregnancy.'
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There is some disagreement about whether or not the Pregnancy Discrimination Act should be altered to avoid these kinds of situations, as some people feel that it should not be an employer's responsibility to accommodate pregnant employees or any employees' requests for change in work. 

Health circumstances might require any number of employees to find different jobs or put in requests for different shifts, but depending on a company's policies–unless a short or long-term disability is at play–an employer likely does not have to accommodate such requests. Businesses care about the market, not on the factory floor. 

FINAL RESULTS
Culture
Should employers be held responsible for miscarriages at work?
#EmployersFault
A festive crown for the winner
#BadThingsHappen