Recent stories circulating about presidential candidate U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) have brought the issue back into America’s consciousness. Some of those articles are questioning a story Warren uses on the campaign trail about her own pregnancy discrimination she says happened in the 1970s. Warren tweeted this week, defending her claim that she was fired when she was visibly pregnant.
According to CNN, about 31,000 pregnancy discrimination cases were filed with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission from 2010 to 2015. And according to the EEOC, Pennsylvania is ranked one of the 10 worst states for pregnancy discrimination.
This was 1971, years before Congress outlawed pregnancy discrimination—but we know it still happens in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. We can fight back by telling our stories. I tell mine on the campaign trail, and I hope to hear yours.— Elizabeth Warren (@ewarren) October 8, 2019
This is why Pittsburgh City Councilor Erika Strassburger (D-Shadyside) advocated for, and helped successfully pass, a non-discrimination bill in Pittsburgh for pregnant people and their partners. The bill was passed in March and has been part of Pittsburgh city law for the last several months.
“I have a six-month old, and as I was pregnant and working, [I was] learning more about the vulnerability of people who are pregnant and their partners,” says Strassburger. “Balancing the needs of starting their family and their workplace.”
The U.S. has a Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) which was created in 1978, and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act (PHRA) prohibits employers from discriminating against workers on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, or a related medical condition, but both laws are limited in scope.
According to the Women’s Law Project, “Under both laws, women have to provide a specific type of evidence of discrimination — that is, a similarly situated, non-pregnant employee with virtually the same job and limitations who received better treatment from the employer — that is very difficult to find.”
Pittsburgh’s legislation goes farther than federal and state laws. For example, employees have to be at jobs 12 months to qualify for maternity law under the PDA. Pittsburgh’s law requires that businesses with at least five employees avoid discriminating against all workers taking leave after their child is born.
Strassburger says Pittsburgh law also provides guidance for employers that don’t qualify on how to avoid pregnancy discrimination complaints.
“Every woman I know and many others, they have many stories that point to possible discrimination,” says Strassburger. “Unfortunately, discrimination is often pernicious and is not explicit, that is the challenge of discrimination.”
Some local legal scholars and business-coalition representatives believe the law could face legal challenges and be struck down, but no challenges have yet emerged.
Megan Stanley, of Pittsburgh’s Human Relations Commission that enforces the non-discrimination ordinance, says there appears to be a fairly strong demand for these pregnancy-related protections.
Since the legislation was announced, there have been four pregnancy-discrimination complaints filed to the HRC. In that time span, there were a total of 36 discrimination complaints filed. That’s 11 percent of the complaints over that time.
“This does not capture the outlying communities or counties, just the city,” says Stanley. “I think this shows this is a problem.”
Strassburger says that pregnancy discrimination doesn’t just impact one kind of worker, just about anyone can face it. She says it can be people that are passed over for promotions because they are pregnant, or even when pregnant people are made to lift heavy objects as part of their package delivery jobs, since those actions can have adverse effects on the baby.
She adds that pregnancy discrimination in Pittsburgh and around the country is as much a racial justice issue as a social justice issue.
“Look at the demographics in Allegheny County. Pregnancy discrimination is higher among minorities. This is a racial justice issue,” says Strassburger.
According to the National Partnership for Women and Families, about 28 percent of pregnancy discrimination charges were filed by Black women from 2011-2015 in the U.S. But Black women only comprise of about 14 percent of women ages 16 to 54 in the workforce.
Strassburger hopes this new attention to the issue will raise the profile of the problems of pregnancy discrimination. She also hopes more people will understand they are protected in Pittsburgh, and they can report to the city’s HRC.
“I am glad that Elizabeth Warren is bringing this to light again,” says Strassburger. “It is a gender equity, social justice, racial justice, economic justice issue. It’s so much more than just a women's issue. And even if the federal law that was passed in 1978 wasn’t as strong as it is supposed to be, I am glad the city of Pittsburgh can protect workers as much as we can.”