On behalf of an old high school acquaintance and all working and potential childbearing persons, I am writing this note to raise awareness to the pregnancy discrimination that is still alive and thriving in the United States.
Kelsey Fisher had been employed as an administrative assistant by a small, local business, Commonwealth Business Services of about 10 employees for approximately two years when she happily discovered that she and her new husband were expecting their first child. When her boss learned of her pregnancy he became excessively angry, spouting off that he needed to “open a friggin’ daycare.” Fisher requested that he not inform the rest of the staff because it was still early (i.e. there is a declining risk of miscarriage as weeks of normal pregnancy increase). Instead, he informed his wife who immediately disclosed the information to a new intern.
The purpose of telling his wife was not to perhaps express worry at the “financial threat” of having to do the decent act of providing a maternal leave package, to guarantee her a position upon her recovery from labor (none of which are required by law), or even to simply smile and celebrate new life. Rather, it was so his wife could give Fisher advice on how to be a good pregnant worker. Fisher’s boss informed her that she needed to let his wife come in and work with her on how to manage her job given her “condition.”
Fisher explained that despite her request for privacy “his wife came in on several occasions and asked loudly if I was having morning sickness and other specific pregnancy related symptoms. Also, my computer was acting up one day and she told me I wouldn’t understand anything for long because I had pregnancy brain now. I sat at the front desk and did not have an office so anyone could have heard it.”
His wife was acting as if pregnancy renders one comatose and incapable of fulfilling one’s administrative duties (which from my own experience are not directly physically taxing or challenging). Further, the belief that the “wife figure” must pass on “universal wisdom” on how to battle the “symptoms, complications, etc.,” that are experienced by every pregnant women is adhering to a scientifically unfounded, generalized, gender mythology and stereotyping that believes in the performance inadequacy and neurosis induced by pregnancy.
In other words, this boss wanted to subject Fisher to his and his wife’s sexist and archaic beliefs on women and pregnancy. In Fisher’s own words, “I told him I thought it was unfair that I was being subjected to unsolicited advice at work from someone who doesn’t even work there and that I expected to be treated the same as I always had been.” Why should anyone be forced to listen to, act out, or believe anyone else’s idiosyncratic opinions that have no real relevancy or function in the workplace, or reality for that matter?
Her boss met Fisher’s request for equal treatment with discrimination and hostility. For the purpose of voicing her frustration with the current laws regarding pregnancy discrimination in the workplace, Fisher wrote a letter to Virginia Governor Robert Francis “Bob” McDonnell:
I experienced multiple instances of negativity, hostility, and discriminatory treatment in my last month with the company to the point that other employees were mentioning the unfair treatment they had witnessed. Tension was very high and my job duties were stripped from me and piled onto our part time administrator who was brought on full-time to help carry the load. I was ignored, excluded from office life, and denied my yearly evaluation and salary increase while the other full-time employee received his raise under the radar. All the while, I continued to perform all of my job duties as assigned while the owner interviewed my replacement in the office right next to my desk. Yesterday I was laid off under the thinly veiled guise that we had too many admin hours and he needed to let me go.
Fisher filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to learn that the Pregnancy Discrimination Act only applies to companies with 15 or more employees. Fisher didn’t even have the peace of mind in knowing that she would have health coverage for prenatal care or a job to return to after she recovered from giving birth. The Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) requires only those businesses with 50 or more employees to “provide eligible employees up to 12 workweeks of unpaid leave a year, and requires
group health benefits to be maintained during the leave as if employees continued to work instead of taking leave. Employees are also entitled to return to their same or an equivalent job at the end of their FMLA leave.”
The Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) explicitly forbids “discrimination based on pregnancy when it comes to any aspect of employment, including hiring, firing, pay, job assignments, promotions, layoff, training, fringe benefits, such as leave and health insurance, and any other term or condition of employment … If a woman is temporarily unable to perform her job due to a medical condition related to pregnancy or childbirth [which was not even the fact in Fisher’s case], the employer or other covered entity must treat her in the same way as it treats any other temporarily disabled employee.”
In addition: “It is unlawful to harass a woman because of pregnancy, childbirth, or a medical condition related to pregnancy or childbirth. Harassment is illegal when it is so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment or when it results in an adverse employment decision (such as the victim being fired or demoted). The harasser can be the victim’s supervisor, a supervisor in another area, a co-worker, or someone who is not an employee of the employer, such as a client or customer.” Or wife?
If Fisher’s employer had had a handful of additional employees he would have been required by law to treat a pregnant woman as an equal and valuable human being. But instead small businesses are given free rein to arbitrarily deny equal treatment and equal opportunity to individuals as their sexism and prejudices see fit! Needless to say, reform is in order.
“If we can agree that it is unfair for pregnant women to be discriminated against when there are [over 15] employees in a company, surely we can agree that it is still wrong despite the company only employing 10 or eight or three.”
And before anyone sparks up with a comment on how “burdensome” it is for a small business to provide generous leave for an employee, I’d like to remind them that Fisher never requested paid leave but instead only to be treated with respect and equality as she continued to perform her duties at the efficient and excellent quality she was known for doing.
As I attempt to speak for the betterment of all women and their families, I’ll end with a self-evident truth by Fisher: “I urge you to stand up and get the word out that discrimination in any form, in any
size company, is wrong.”
Sites of potential interest:
Fisher’s letter to the governor:
Sarah “Sydney” Lane is an apprentice poet, ecologist, and teacher. She is in the throes of the MFA in Creative Writing program application season, neurotically waiting for admissions responses. As an undergraduate, she studied Wildlife Ecology and Conservation at the University of Florida. She is intensely egalitarian and biocentric, believing that the proper study of humankind is survival for all. She thinks that contemporary society is in need of an intense paradigm shift in all directions and that ecopoetics and feminist writing/activism will serve as the energizing medium for social transformation.
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Ed: Brianna Bemel