With Child and Out of a Job

Pregnancy discrimination is rampant and devastating for its victims. But in a tight labor market, it may be a problem for capital, too.

Protesters gather outside the US Supreme Court while the court hears arguments in the Young v. UPS case December 3, 2014 in Washington, D.C. Win McNamee / Getty

In the summer of 2013, working on an article for Glamour magazine, I interviewed a Rent-a-Center collection agent, a train conductor, an office manager, and a health care worker, all of whom had one thing in common. They had all faced pregnancy discrimination at work.

The legal experts I talked with at the time said this was happening more and more. Our economy kept eking out low-wage, nonunion jobs, and too few even of those; with unemployment then at 7.6 percent, workers were increasingly disposable. Workers who can and do get pregnant were particularly disposable. Pregnancy discrimination is far more likely to affect women in the lower rungs of the nonunion working class, who often have intensely physical jobs which require some modest accommodation if they’re going to be done by a pregnant person. These workers also live paycheck-to-paycheck and their families can’t easily forgo their earnings.

Because capital enjoyed a plenitude of available workers in 2013, there wasn’t much political will to help improve workplaces for pregnant women. (Although a few relatively progressive places like New York City did address the problem.)

Two years later, a 2015 Supreme Court decision, Young vs. UPS, set a new legal standard for evaluating pregnancy discrimination. But according to a new report released last Thursday by A Better Balance, a legal rights group advocating for parents and caregivers in the workplace, it hasn’t helped much: while the law is clear that employers aren’t allowed to use pregnancy as an explicit reason to fire or refuse to hire somebody, employers still fail to provide medically necessary accommodations for pregnant women, and the courts are letting them get away with it.

The report describes the wrenching ordeal, first reported last year in the New York Times, of women working in a warehouse in Memphis, Tennessee, who miscarried because their supervisors wouldn’t accommodate their doctors’ light-duty orders and continued to insist that they lift heavy boxes.

The report, entitled Long Overdue, also details lesser-known stories. Cassandra Adduci worked in a FedEx facility, also in Memphis, loading and unloading boxes. When she got pregnant in 2014, her doctor restricted her lifting to twenty-five pounds. FedEx refused to find her an alternate work assignment, instead giving her unpaid leave and then firing her. Lauri Huffman, a shift leader in a Speedway convenience store in Vassar, Michigan, had a similar experience: she was forced onto unpaid leave and ultimately fired after requesting lighter duties.

Armanda Legros asked her employer, a trucking company, if she could avoid heavy lifting; her boss refused and dismissed her. She was forced onto food stamps and had to use water instead of milk in her four-year-old’s cereal in order to make ends meet. Other women featured in the “Long Overdue” report were made homeless by their employer’s refusal to accommodate their pregnancy; others lost their health insurance, often during complicated pregnancies.

One of the current law’s biggest pitfalls is that to prove pregnancy discrimination, women have to prove that the employers have made accommodations for other “similarly” temporarily disabled employees. Which is nonsense, in part because pregnancy isn’t “similar” to anything else. But beyond that, it means that if your crap, low-wage employer treats all physically disabled or injured employees like trash, then you can’t prove “discrimination” when they don’t accommodate your pregnancy. And whatever the righteousness of a woman’s case, lawsuits take years to settle, while a pregnant person needs accommodation right away. Like Roe v. Wade, it doesn’t do the plaintiff much good to win years later.

Years ago, in Monthly Review, the artist and thinker Sunny Taylor wrote about being physically disabled in a society where people are only valued for their work. People whose bodies prevent them from creating profit for capital are treated with contempt, as disposables, and they often feel ashamed of not working, as if it’s their personal problem. Yet Taylor also described how being disabled and being able to collect disability, however disgracefully minimal in the US, had also freed her to step out of the wage labor system, make art — Taylor is a painter — have an intellectual life, and be valued for something other than the profits she could make for capital. In a sense, she was thankful to her disability for giving her a privilege that most people don’t have.

Women’s bodies, like those of the disabled, tend to present a problem for capitalism because pregnancy, babies, and children are in no way productive. Kids are, as feminist writer Moe Tkacik recently put it, “time-murdering.” They create zero value for the employer and only compete for the employee’s time.

Yet for women who choose to bear and raise children, there is power in the capacity to do something that — despite all of capitalism’s best efforts to devalue it — still has cultural value. Being animals with some physical instincts, we know instinctively that such work is needed, even though it’s outside the wage labor system. Pregnancy, like a painting, is one of many reminders that we are — or could be — more than cogs in the profit-making machine.

Of course, women’s reproduction isn’t entirely useless to capital as a system, it’s just viewed that way by individual capitalists enjoying an abundance of workers, or lacking the vision or profit margins to think long-term. As Marxist feminists have long pointed out, the capitalist class needs us to make babies — to produce future workers. The idea advanced by author Jenny Brown, that our low birth rate constitutes a “birth strike,” could give women leverage to demand better reproductive working conditions. An end to pregnancy discrimination would certainly be one of those demands.

What’s clear is that a probably temporary shift in the economy is now helping pregnant women. The current moment is not 2013; unemployment is now at 3.6 percent, the lowest since 1969. With a tight labor market, even low-wage workers have some leverage. Some business leaders are supporting serious local and state reform to protect pregnant workers, while many chambers of commerce have withheld their opposition, with some even championing it. On a press call last Thursday discussing the “Long Overdue” report, Iris Wilbur, director of government affairs at Louisville, Kentucky’s local chamber of commerce, described her office’s support of Kentucky’s new progressive law protecting pregnant workers as a “workforce development issue,” and emphasized the need to reduce turnover in the workplace. In her testimony supporting the state’s bill, she was blunt about the macroeconomic picture: “In today’s historically tight labor market, we need to make sure that anyone who wants to work is able to work …”

At the federal level, this baby-friendly (or at least desperate) capitalist coalition is also supporting the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (PWFA), which would require employers to provide “reasonable accommodations” for pregnancy and childbirth. The PWFA, championed by liberals like Representative Jerry Nadler (D-NY) and Senator Bob Casey (D-PA) — but also by Republicans like Representative John Katko of upstate New York — was introduced in Congress today.

We should seize this opportune economic moment, when women workers are in demand. Reforms like the PWFA will still protect women long after the low unemployment that inspired them vanishes. But it’s also important to remember that a system that only sometimes value mothers and children, depending on the business cycle, isn’t much of a system. As with the climate crisis, the indignities and abuse pregnant women face on the job show that capitalism is dangerously at odds with nature and life itself.

The problems that our bodies and families create for capitalists are not our problems. They are capitalism’s problems. It would be far too girly of feminists to focus only on solving capitalism’s problems for it. For socialists, the project is, instead: how do we build a world in which our bodies and babies are valued whether or not they make profits for capital?