Carole Smith of Bethel Park never dreamed that having a baby would lead to being fired. But in 2006, when her doctor ordered her to remain home for six weeks after her cesarean section, Normandy Properties terminated her employment.
Ms. Smith's story is an example of pregnancy discrimination, a practice that is routinely inflicted on pregnant U.S. workers, according to a recent report by the National Women's Law Center.
"When it happens to you, it's absolutely devastating," Ms. Smith said. "You're not committing a crime; you're having a baby."
In the 2012 fiscal year, 171 pregnancy discrimination charges were filed to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in Pennsylvania. Nationally, there were 3,779 charges.
When Ms. Smith, a property manager, took her issue to court in 2008, the jury awarded her $1.8 million in damages.
But most pregnancy discrimination occurs in lower skilled jobs, like retail, food service and manufacturing. Situations arise when a woman is unable to perform her duties exactly as before, such as standing for long periods of time, going without water or lifting heavy objects.
"It's not overt dislike for pregnant women, it's just employers not wanting the inconvenience," said Pittsburgh employment attorney Samuel Cordes.
Mr. Cordes said the economy is partially to blame.
"When economic times are slow, the people who are most vulnerable tend to be the ones who are dismissed," Mr. Cordes said.
Theoretically, there are three laws in place that should stop pregnancy discrimination from occurring: the Civil Rights Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Family and Medical Leave Act. Yet discrimination lawyers and women's rights organizations say there are too many loopholes in the existing legislation.
"They're sort of like a patchwork of protections," said Pittsburgh attorney Charles Lamberton. "There is no uniform and comprehensive set of protections against the problems that could come up for pregnant workers."
A group of lawmakers including U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa, is trying to fix that.
Mr. Casey is the main sponsor of the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, S. 942. If made a law, it would force employers to make reasonable workplace adjustments for employees who become pregnant. This could take the form of reassigning heavy lifting duties, providing a stool for a pregnant cashier or modifying a no-food-or-drink policy. Conversely, it would prohibit employers from forcing women to take unwanted paid or unpaid leave for pregnancy-related reasons.
The changes would be similar to laws already in place for employees with disabilities, Mr. Casey said.
"We have been making those accommodations for years, even if it is a bit of a challenge for employers," Mr. Casey said. "If we think practically, it should be even easier to make accommodations for women who are pregnant or just had a baby."
Although the bill has been introduced in both the House and the Senate, Ms. Casey admits it might be difficult to gain bipartisan support on an issue of government-imposed changes in the workplace.
It is also unclear when, if an employee is physically unable to perform her job, it becomes discrimination. Nancy Egbert, assistant director of Genesis of Pittsburgh, said many women who come to the nonprofit for services have been forced out of fast food jobs.
"If the girl can't lift or stay on her feet, there aren't a lot of alternatives," Ms. Egbert said. "Often they just have to go on unemployment and not go back to work until they have the baby."
Although the number of pregnancy discrimination complaints have decreased slightly since 2008, the pregnant workers' rights will likely continue to be an issue as the number of women who serve as primary breadwinners continues to grow.
Meanwhile, 88 percent of those working women stay on the job into their last three months of pregnancy, according to the U.S. Dept. of Commerce.
For women like Ms. Smith, who is still employed by Normandy Properties, it's a problem that should already be solved.
"We need to be protected," Ms. Smith said. "It's amazing to me that as far as we have come for women in this country, this is still happening to good employees."
Jessica Contrera: firstname.lastname@example.org.