When the New York City Council passed the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act in January, it seemed like a win for feminists. The law mandates that working women who become pregnant must be given the necessary accommodations that will allow them to keep their jobs, such as allotted times for rest and a lightened workload. For women who are living on a minimum wage salary, the ability to keep working is absolutely essential because it allows them to get by without making further sacrifices.
Apart from its obvious benefits, this law also seems to at least partially make up for the widespread workplace discrimination against pregnant women, which has included firing them when they become pregnant, discounting women entirely if there’s a chance they could become pregnant or paying women less under the assumption that if they have a family, they are not the sole breadwinner and can rely on their husband’s income. With all of this in mind, the Pregnant Workers Fairness act is the kind of law that signals a huge step forward in a historically male-oriented arena of American society.
Angelica Valencia, a pregnant woman from Queens, felt none of these benefits. After she became pregnant, Valencia’s doctor told her that because there was a high risk of her miscarrying, she should not work overtime at her labor-intensive job in a potato-packing plant. When she was forced by her supervisor to work overtime and fell ill, a note from her doctor prompted her supervisor to fire her rather than give her the accommodations she needed to maintain a healthy pregnancy. What’s more, Valencia was never informed of her rights under the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act and did not even know that the law existed at all.
This kind of neglect is absolutely inexcusable. First of all, the law requires that pregnant women be informed of their rights, so Valencia’s ignorance is completely unjustified and unfair. Secondly, her doctor’s note should have been sufficient evidence to prove that her working overtime was for the moment impossible, but her regular work hours could have been maintained. While it is reasonable to assume that any work at her laborious job would have been risky, Valencia was presumably unqualified to work anywhere else. Especially with the law in place, it was her supervisor’s duty to keep her employed in some capacity.
Women like Valencia, whose survival is completely dependent on access to a regular, steady paycheck have so few vocational options that this law should have and in other cases has acted as a sort of lifeline, giving them financial security at a time when they need it the most – when they’re preparing to expand their family and need a way to cover all of the expenses that come with doing so. Valencia’s medical condition should have given her employer incentive to adjust to her needs rather than turn her away because of it.
Valencia has since filed suit against her former employer, saying that she was wrongfully terminated because the company failed to adhere to the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act. While she has been offered her job back with the company, which cites a mere “misunderstanding” as the cause of her firing, there is more at work here than miscommunication between employer and employee. The actions of Valencia’s supervisors clearly constitute discrimination. She was fired because of a natural health condition – one that, it should be noted, most readily affects women – and one that under the circumstances should have been accounted for and worked around, rather than denigrated.
I hope that Valencia’s story will act as a message for other employers to refrain from making similar discriminatory choices and instead choose to honor and accommodate all of their employees’ individual needs in the workplace. This law should represent a major step forward, and let’s make sure it accomplishes for all women what it was created to do.
Opinions Editor Nina Hagen ’15 firstname.lastname@example.org is from St. Paul, Minn. She majors in English with a concentration in women’s and gender studies.