Every woman should have the right to feel like pregnancy is one of the happiest times in her life. Yet, despite workplace discrimination against pregnant women being illegal, far too many expectant mothers continue to lose their jobs and face other “penalties” from employers.
The irony is that firing pregnant women isn’t just bad ethics—it’s bad economics. Replacing employees is expensive, time-consuming and unpredictable: According to a 2012 report from the Center for American Progress, it costs employers a minimum of 16% of a worker’s annual salary to replace them. In terms of dollars and cents, that translates to an average cost of $3,328 to replace someone who is paid $10/hour. Meanwhile, (unfortunately) only 6% of low-wage workers are granted any paid maternity leave. Even if a woman happens to be among the 6%, that only translates to a “loss” of $2,400 for the employer to cover a full-time leave of six weeks at $10/hour—or nearly $1,000 less than it would take to hire someone new. Yet, women working in these lower-wage positions remain particularly vulnerable to irrational and illegal firings due to pregnancy, with a bulk of the 31,000 pregnancy discrimination charges filed with the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission between 2010 and 2015 coming from hourly workers. (In 2017 alone, pregnancy discrimination lawsuits resulted in employer payouts of $15 million.)
If the bad economics and threat of justifiable lawsuits aren’t enough to convince employers not to reprimand pregnant workers, then what is? Joan Williams, founding director of the Center for Work-Life Law at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law, believes it’s going to take a cultural change. As she tells CNN:
“When a man has to leave work due, say, to severe nausea incident to chemotherapy, it is something the employer has to live with: It’s seen as the cost of hiring human beings. If a woman has to leave work, say, due to severe nausea incident to pregnancy, she is seen as demanding special treatment. Men are still the measure of what is seen as the inevitable cost of hiring human beings. Anything related to women alone is seen as somehow extra.”
This is a direct result of society treating pregnancy like a burdensome medical condition, Williams says. Consider the case of Whitney Tomlinson, who was told she must take unpaid leave from her job with a Walmart Distribution Center during pregnancy because she was a “liability.” After watching many of her co-workers get accommodations that allowed them to avoid heavy lifting, this didn’t make any sense to her. “I was surprised, and I was angry. I was curious what was wrong and what I had done,” Tomlinson tells CNN, explaining it put her in a difficult financial situation throughout her pregnancy. She recently filed a complaint against Walmart with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and it very well may result in another charge against the company. But it isn’t just the cost to companies that we should consider. When we push women like Tomlinson and others out of the workforce, we’re losing something perhaps most valuable of all: The perspectives, work-ethics and skills of mothers.