According to a class-action lawsuit against Walmart, the multi-billion-dollar company allegedly discriminated against thousands of female employees simply because they wanted to continue working while they were pregnant.
A complaint filed in federal court on Friday by A Better Balance, National Women's Law Center, and DC-based law firm Mehri & Skalet alleges that two plaintiffs, Talisa Borders and Otisha Woolbright, experienced discrimination while employed at different Walmart locations while pregnant. In 2014, both women filed a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and their state's human rights agency.
Borders, who lives in Illinois, worked as an associate at Walmart from July 2012 to April 2017. During that time, she became pregnant, and made an informal arrangement with co-workers that would allow her to avoid lifting heavy objects and climbing ladders. According to the complaint, a supervisor told Borders she'd need to provide a note from her doctor to continue working; when she did bring one and asked to continue the arrangement with her co-workers, she was denied that request by Tiffany, a human resources training coordinator. Tiffany also allegedly told the plaintiff she was required to take unpaid leave, even though her baby was not due for another two months, and failed to address the possibility of accommodating her so she could continue to work. According to the suit, Tiffany told Ms. Borders that this policy came from Walmart District Human Resources.
Read more: How America Is Failing Its Mothers
Adding insult to injury, when Borders finally returned to work after giving birth, Walmart allegedly refused to reinstate her at her former position, which meant she would earn a lower salary.
A few thousand miles away in Florida, Woolbright alleges she had a similar experience. Despite telling her supervisors in Walmart's deli/bakery department she was a high-risk pregnancy and needed to avoid heavy lifting—and offering paperwork to validate her claims—she was allegedly denied the accommodation. Per the lawsuit: "In response to Ms. Woolbright telling Ms. Blalock that she was given instructions by her doctor to avoid heavy lifting, Ms. Blalock told Ms. Woolbright, 'If you can't do [heavy lifting], you can walk out those doors.' She also made a statement expressing concern that Ms. Woolbright was 'a liability' and trying to 'cost Walmart money.' Ms. Blalock further told Ms. Woolbright that she had seen Demi Moore do a summersault on television toward the end of her pregnancy, so pregnancy was 'no excuse' for Ms. Woolbright."
It wasn't until Woolbright sustained an injury trying to lift heavy trays of rotisserie chickens that she was allowed to do only sedentary work. Later, when she inquired about taking time off to actually have the baby and recover, the suit states, she was fired the next day.
In short, the suit states, Walmart treated its 'pregnant employees as second-class citizens'
"Up until at least March 2014, including the times during which Ms. Borders and Ms. Woolbright were pregnant," the suit states, "Walmart maintained a constellation of policies and practices governing modifications and accommodations offered to employees in need of changes in the workplace due to health issues. In creating separate categories for 1) disabilities, 2) pregnancy or other medical conditions, and 3) work-related injuries, Walmart set up a graduated system of workplace modifications that explicitly excluded pregnant employees from a wide variety of accommodations and adjustments for which non-pregnant employees, similar to pregnant employees in their ability or inability to work, were eligible."
In short, the suit states, Walmart treated its "pregnant employees as second-class citizens" when its policies and practices violated protections promised to pregnant women under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Furthermore, the complaint contends, Walmart continues to discriminate against pregnant employees under its current accommodation policies, though the lawsuit only addresses the previous ones. Borders, Woolbright, and the class of people they represent are seeking damages "for physical and mental injuries sustained as a result of Walmart's unlawful conduct, including compensation for loss of income and benefits, mental anguish, emotional distress, and humiliation."
The plaintiffs in this case reveal "the particular impact that pregnancy discrimination has on women in low-wage jobs," says Emily Martin, General Counsel and Vice President for Workplace Justice at NWLC, "and the families who can least afford losing income at the moment their families and expenses are expanding. When a pregnant worker is denied accommodations she has a medical need for, one of two things will typically happen. Either she will be pushed off the job and lose a paycheck her family is counting on, or she will continue to undertake tasks that could endanger her or her pregnancy. Either of these paths can pose real threats to her and her family."
It isn't enough to hope individual managers will do the right thing by pregnant women, Martin says. "You need policies that follow the law and you need to train managers and ensure those policies are actually being implemented."
"We hope [this suit] will lead to employers taking steps to ensure that what happened at Walmart doesn't happen in their workplaces," Martin continues. "No one should have to choose between her job and the health of her pregnancy. We hope this lawsuit means that many fewer women will be forced to."
When reached out to for comment, Randy Hargrove, a spokesperson for Walmart told Broadly, "Walmart is a great place for women to work. Our policies have always fully met or exceeded both state and federal law and this includes the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Pregnancy Discrimination Act. We've also had a strong anti-discrimination policy, which provides more protection than required by the law. That policy has long listed pregnancy as a protected status. We deny the claims of Ms. Borders and Ms. Woolbright and plan to defend the company.
"The complaint was also filed as a proposed class action lawsuit and to that point, we disagree that the claims raised are entitled to class treatment."