We speak with pregnant workers every day who face an impossible choice. What do I do if my doctor advises that I request a simple accommodation to maintain a healthy pregnancy, like a stool to sit on or assistance with heavy lifting, but my employer won’t provide them? Do I keep earning my paycheck when I need it most, or follow my doctor’s orders? The women featured here faced such a choice.
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Friday, June 15, 2018
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AFTER YEARS OF LEGAL PRESSURE, WALMART UPDATES POLICY FOR PREGNANT EMPLOYEES
Questions Remain Around Policy Implementation & Compensation for Harmed Workers
NEW YORK—On the heels of a report in today’s The New York Times, four organizations that have long advocated for fair treatment of pregnant employees announce a new policy change at Walmart, regarding accommodations for pregnant employees. Walmart has yet to publicly announce the change, leaving workers unsure of their rights. The new policy gives workers who are pregnant, breastfeeding, or recovering from childbirth access to Temporary Alternative Duty—a program that Walmart has previously reserved only for workers with on-the-job injuries.
The legal groups—A Better Balance, the National Women’s Law Center, and Mehri & Skalet, LLC—have represented multiple workers in pregnancy discrimination claims against Walmart and have repeatedly called on Walmart to ensure that its policy provided fair treatment for all pregnant workers who need temporary accommodations at work. A fourth group, the nonprofit organization the Organization United for Respect (OUR), has also sought similar changes by the retail giant.
“This policy change is an important step forward taken by the country’s largest employer to ensure the health and safety of pregnant workers,” said Dina Bakst, Co-Founder & Co-President of A Better Balance. “But we remain concerned because Walmart has failed to publicly announce the new policy, and as a result, workers remain confused and misled about how it applies to them. If any pregnant worker still has to risk her health on the job at Walmart, then there’s clearly a communication and management training problem.”
One worker reported that she received incorrect and damaging information from Walmart: “Earlier this year, I started bleeding when I was doing heavy lifting stocking shelves. My doctor said I needed to avoid heavy lifting, but when I talked to Walmart Human Resources, they told me I would probably be put on unpaid leave. That didn’t seem right to me, and after talking to A Better Balance, I was encouraged to fight for my rights tooth and nail. I took my issue as high up the chain as I could and a couple of weeks later, they gave me light duty. No one ever told me about the pregnancy policy—once I was back at work on the night shift I dug through our company intranet and finally found it,” the pregnant Walmart worker said. “I don’t think it’s right that they would hide this policy—most other Walmart workers are too scared to push as hard as I did for fear of retaliation.” The worker sent the policy to the three legal groups.
“The policy change shows that Walmart realized it had to do better by its pregnant employees—and that is real progress—but we have questions about remaining ambiguities in the policy and will be closely monitoring implementation,” said Emily Martin, Vice President for Education & Workplace Justice at the National Women’s Law Center. “Walmart needs to explain to its employees exactly what their rights are under their new policy. Given Walmart’s history of being on the wrong side of this issue, we are not willing to just give them the benefit of the doubt.”
“Because of Walmart’s previous practices, hardworking women have lost wages that were critical to them and their families. It is time for pregnant workers to be fully compensated for their losses,” said Ellen Eardley, co-lead counsel in Borders v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., No. 3:17-cv-00506-MJR (S.D. Ill.), and a partner at the law firm Mehri & Skalet, PLLC. “Walmart cannot run away from their obligation to make these women whole. They should not have to wait years for resolution.”
In 2017, the legal groups brought a nationwide pregnancy discrimination class action lawsuit against Walmart and filed a discrimination charge on behalf of Candis Riggins, from Maryland, whose job responsibilities—including cleaning bathrooms with toxic chemicals—were causing her to become ill while she was pregnant. When Ms. Riggins asked for temporary relief of those duties, Walmart refused. As a result, Ms. Riggins called out sick a number of times, and was eventually fired.
Just last summer, Whitney Tomlinson, a Walmart worker and 30-year-old single mother of two living in Griffin, GA, was pushed onto an unpaid leave of absence when she submitted a doctor’s note citing some lifting restrictions due to her pregnancy. As a result, she suffered severe financial hardship during an already vulnerable time.
Ms. Riggins’ and Ms. Tomlinson’s charges are still pending before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
“Walmart associates have families, and Walmart’s policies have been far from family-sustaining for a long time,” said Walmart associate and OUR Walmart member Paris Mendez. “Making accommodations to ensure a healthy pregnancy for pregnant workers while on the job is a step in the right direction, but we will keep calling on Walmart to implement policies that fully and appropriately accommodate each pregnant workers’ needs, pay $15 with predictable, full time hours, and publicly commit to end retaliation against workers who speak out for better treatment and work conditions.”
Women at Walmart joined together in 2013 to raise awareness about the challenges facing pregnant women at the company. This is when Respect The Bump was born—a national movement of Walmart associates who are expecting, have newborns, or are raising children and are committed to improving working conditions at Walmart for pregnant women. In 2014, as a response to the campaign and legal pressure, Walmart changed its pregnancy policy to include accommodations for some pregnant women the company deemed “temporarily disabled.” The new policy takes this initiative further.
Note: Ms. Tomlinson, Ms. Riggins, other Walmart workers and representatives from the groups are available for interviews.