Two months into her pregnancy, saleswoman Kimberly Erin Caselman told her bosses at Pier 1 that she was going to have a second child and that she intended to work during her pregnancy, but that her obstetrician had recommended she not lift heavy objects or climb ladders.
That was in November, and her San Jose store, in turn, put her on eight weeks of light duty. But when she asked for an extension of this accommodation, the home decor giant refused, instead forcing her into four months of unpaid medical leave in January while she was still pregnant, according to a class-action discrimination lawsuit filed last month.
Caselman’s baby isn’t even due until July. Her forced maternity leave ends May 20, and she fears losing her job if she doesn’t return to work. According to Caselman’s attorneys, Pier 1 has violated a California law that makes it illegal for employers to deny reasonable accommodations for an employee for a condition related to pregnancy, childbirth, or a related medical issue, based on her doctor’s advice. Pier 1 has said it doesn’t comment on ongoing legal matters.
With Mother’s Day just around the corner, Caselman’s case is an immediate reminder that passing the federal Pregnant Workers Fairness Act—introduced into Congress a year ago and now under review by committees—is necessary. It has been swiftly gathering Democratic supporters, despite no Republicans yet signing on.
The bill is a national version of similar pregnancy fairness laws that have passed in states and cities including West Virginia, New Jersey, Maryland, New York City, and Philadelphia; it seeks to expand on 1978’s Pregnancy Discrimination Act by declaring it unlawful for employers not to grant reasonable accommodations to pregnant employees, or to deny employment opportunities to job applicants in need of those reasonable accommodations.
Working families at varying income levels, comprising both single moms and two parents, are affected financially by the issue, said Emily Martin, vice president and general counsel of the nonpartisan Washington, D.C.–based National Women’s Law Center. According to the center, nearly one in five families with children is headed by a single working mom.
“It’s very important for federal law to provide with unmistakable clarity that employers have to provide accommodations for pregnancy-related disabilities, as they have for other disabilities,” said Martin. “Women working in low-wage, physically demanding jobs without a lot of bargaining power who need to provide food for their families are especially affected. It puts women in an impossible situation where they have to choose between following their medical adviser’s advice or losing their job.”
The National Women’s Law Center’s push for support of the bill has yielded results in Congress. So far, said Martin, 123 House Democrats and 26 Senate Democrats have signed on as cosponsors, including Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., on Tuesday and Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., and Rep. Ann Kuster, D-N.H., just last week.
Martin said there’s hope for a U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions hearing to take place within the next several weeks on the economic needs of women and families, including the impact of pregnancy discrimination.
As for Republican support, it’s just a matter of time.
“We continue to be optimistic that will come soon, getting a Republican cosponsor. It’s common-sense, common-ground legislation,” Martin said. “This shouldn’t be a bipartisan issue but an issue that everyone gets behind. We’ve had some positive conversations with Republican officials. But Washington, D.C., is a dysfunctional place some of the time, so it’s difficult these days to get bipartisan consensus on anything.”