Earlier this year, when Officer Lyndi Trischler of the Florence, KY police department asked her supervisors if she could beassigned light-duty work as her pregnancy progressed, she was denied. Though this was the arrangement they had settled on last year, when she was pregnant with her first child, this time she was told to either go out on patrol, or go on paid leave.
This was no small task for Officer Trischler, however. At five months pregnant, she found her gun belt pulled painfully on her abdomen. Her heavy bulletproof vest was so tight that she was struggling to breathe. She even started having heart palpitations. She finally reached the point where she couldn’t physically do the job anymore, and was forced to go on unpaid leave.
This is unfortunately not an uncommon trend nowadays. Trischler has filed a pregnancy discrimination claim against the city with the Federal Employment Opportunity Commission. Cases such as Trischler’s are growing in number, in spite of a 1978 law against pregnancy discrimination.
The consequences of such situations can be devastating, as many pregnant women who have been forced into unpaid leave lose their health insurance and their income. Trischler is worried how she’s going to pay her hospital bill when she delivers in October.
Even worse, some women have been given the choice between their babies or their jobs, and in certain cases have either terminated their pregnancies or been fired. Even the stress that this kind of turmoil can cause can be damaging to a pregnancy.
And it’s not just physically demanding jobs like Trischler’s that can be difficult for a woman as her pregnancy progresses. Hormone changes make women’s ligaments looser, which can lead to back pain and carpal tunnel. These are already common problems in office jobs.
According to Wendy Chavkin, a professor of public health and obstetrics and gynecology at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, the expanding bulk of a woman’s belly can make it difficult to balance, bend and reach, and later in pregnancy, can compress the bladder and lungs. Pregnancy can also lead to gestational diabetes, hypertension, edema, fatigue, and a host of other conditions.
“But all of that is relevant on the job only if it makes a difference in whether you can do it or not,” Chavkin said. “There is some data to show that some arduous, physically demanding jobs can collide with the needs of pregnancy. But that can often be reasonably accommodated…And if we make work accommodations for men who have hernias and heart attacks, why not for pregnant women?”
Some pregnant workers require simple accommodations. Bathroom breaks and water for those with diabetes, stools for those on their feet for long hours, and ergonomic chairs.
“For pregnant women, choose a chair with good lumbar support that can reduce pressure on the increased curve of the spine. Also, a foot rest can ease pressure on joints as well as reduce swelling,” says Roy Wright, Chair Specialist at SitBetter.com
The central question in Trischler’s case — whether an employer can deny accommodations to a pregnant worker, while providing them to workers injured while on the job — is at the heart of another case, Young vs. UPS, that the Supreme Court recently agreed to hear.
Penny Young, a former UPS driver in Landover, MD, sued UPS in federal court, arguing that the company refused to honor her midwife’s note recommending she not lift more than 20 pounds, even though UPS routinely gave such modifications to workers with non-work-related injuries who were disabled.
Though she wanted to work light duty or continue driving her route while observing the lifting restriction, Young says her supervisors told her she was “too much of a liability” to keep on the job while she was pregnant. UPS says its policies are “pregnancy neutral.”
The EEOC recently issued guidelines saying that employers that make adjustments for workers injured on the job must also grant reasonable accommodations to pregnant workers who need them.