Walmart’s Inhumane Policies for Pregnant Workers

Amien Essif November 6, 2014

Walmart workers protest the company's pregnancy policies outside of a Chicago Walmart in September. (OUR Walmart Facebook)

In Feb­ru­ary, Bene’t Holmes asked her man­ag­er at a Chica­go Wal­mart to put her on lighter duty. She was four months preg­nant and her job includ­ed lift­ing heavy card­board box­es con­tain­ing two large bot­tles of bleach, strain­ing her back and mak­ing her fear for her health and the health of her child. But the man­ag­er told her to con­tin­ue with her work, that she was expect­ed to lift 50 pounds or more.

So I stayed there,” Holmes says, and the very next day when I came into work, I had a mis­car­riage on Walmart’s prop­er­ty, in the back bathroom.”

Holmes says she sub­se­quent­ly missed 18 days to recov­er, prompt­ing man­age­ment to coach” her — Walmart’s jar­gon for a for­mal rep­ri­mand — for the unex­cused absences and to give her a demer­it point, which she would have to per­form addi­tion­al work to expunge from her record.

This was not sim­ply the fault of an incom­pe­tent man­ag­er, but the result of Walmart’s pol­i­cy toward expec­tant moth­ers, accord­ing to a nascent preg­nant work­er advo­ca­cy group Respect the Bump,” which held its first in-per­son meet­ing in Chica­go on Sep­tem­ber 24.

Spon­sored by the Unit­ed Food and Com­mer­cial Work­ers Union (UFCW), the meet­ing brought togeth­er about a dozen work­ers from dif­fer­ent parts of the coun­try includ­ing Cal­i­for­nia, Col­orado, Min­neso­ta and Illi­nois, with the shared expe­ri­ence of work­ing while preg­nant at the nation’s largest employ­er of women.

Atten­dees estab­lished a list of demands to present to Wal­mart, includ­ing to com­ply imme­di­ate­ly with the 1978 Preg­nan­cy Dis­crim­i­na­tion Act and to craft a store pol­i­cy in line with the Preg­nant Work­ers Fair­ness Act, a more pro­gres­sive bill pend­ing in Con­gress. The group is also call­ing for the instal­la­tion of breast­feed­ing sta­tions in all Wal­mart stores and recog­ni­tion of preg­nan­cy-relat­ed doc­tors’ notes.

And in sol­i­dar­i­ty with its par­ent orga­ni­za­tion OUR Wal­mart, atten­dees of the Chica­go meet­ing elect­ed to demand $15 an hour min­i­mum wage for all Wal­mart employ­ees and access to con­sis­tent full-time work.

After the meet­ing, Respect the Bump went pub­lic with its demands, stag­ing a demon­stra­tion in front of the Wal­mart in the Chatham neigh­bor­hood on Chicago’s South Side where Bene’t Holmes suf­fered her mis­car­riage in February.

The demon­stra­tors expect­ed to walk into the store and present the man­ag­er with their demands but were stopped by secu­ri­ty and made to stand on the side­walk. Even­tu­al­ly, the man­ag­er came out, flanked by secu­ri­ty, and Holmes and her fel­low mem­bers of Respect the Bump hand­ed him a water bot­tle and a stool — two items rep­re­sent­ing the lit­tle things” that can help pre­vent a mis­car­riage, accord­ing to Holmes.

Work­ers say that cashiers are made to stand while work­ing and are for­bid­den to keep water bot­tles on hand at this Wal­mart store even if a work­er is preg­nant. Orga­niz­ers point to stores in Col­orado and Texas with sim­i­lar work­ing conditions.

He didn’t shake our hands,” says Holmes of her man­ag­er Tony who accept­ed their props. Usu­al­ly Tony shakes hands.” She told In These Times that she did not face retal­i­a­tion for par­tic­i­pat­ing in the demon­stra­tion once she returned to work lat­er that week. In fact, the man­ag­er attempt­ed to shake her hand, but Holmes says she told him she need­ed that hand­shake the day of the rally.”

For a num­ber of those involved, the meet­ing and sub­se­quent protest was a land­mark in the cam­paign for respect at Wal­mart.” Respect the Bump” is a sub-group of a sub-group: The UFCW has been orga­niz­ing Wal­mart work­ers for a lit­tle over three years through its sub­sidiary Orga­ni­za­tion Unit­ed for Respect at Wal­mart (OUR Wal­mart), the non-union work­er group respon­si­ble for the one-day Wal­mart strike action.

OUR Wal­mart began reach­ing out to fel­low asso­ciates,” as Wal­mart calls its employ­ees, who had come out pub­licly — most­ly through social media — about fac­ing mis­treat­ment at their work­place while pregnant.

Tiffany Beroid was one of the first to get involved. Sev­en months into her preg­nan­cy, Beroid brought a doctor’s notice to her man­ag­er which rec­om­mend­ed that she per­form lighter duties at her Wal­mart in Mary­land, but, Beroid told the Wash­ing­ton Post, the man­ag­er said they had no such work for her and pres­sured her into tak­ing unpaid mater­ni­ty leave.

Exas­per­at­ed, Beroid reached out on Face­book to oth­er women in her sit­u­a­tion which caught the atten­tion of OUR Wal­mart, accord­ing to the Post.

The group of women work­ers that emerged began call­ing them­selves Respect the Bump around Octo­ber 2013 and, with the help of the Nation­al Women’s Law Cen­ter (NWLC) and the women’s advo­ca­cy group A Bet­ter Bal­ance, claimed a vic­to­ry for their cause this spring. A work­er asso­ci­at­ed with Respect the Bump filed a class action law­suit in Jan­u­ary alleg­ing that Walmart’s com­pa­ny pol­i­cy explic­it­ly denied preg­nant work­ers with med­ical needs the sorts of accom­mo­da­tions made avail­able to work­ers with … needs aris­ing out of dis­abil­i­ty or on the job injuries,” accord­ing to Emi­ly Mar­tin, Gen­er­al Coun­cil at NWLC. Then in March, the retail giant qui­et­ly rewrote its non-dis­crim­i­na­tion pol­i­cy to include tem­po­rary dis­abil­i­ty caused by pregnancy.”

But Respect the Bump and the coali­tion of women’s advo­ca­cy groups sup­port­ing their work argue that the change at Wal­mart does not go far enough. Since the new pol­i­cy states that work­ers are eli­gi­ble for accom­mo­da­tion if they suf­fer from a tem­po­rary dis­abil­i­ty caused by preg­nan­cy,” activists claim that it fails to address the needs of preg­nant employ­ees who are not dis­abled but are unable to per­form their nor­mal duties. Mar­tin explains:

For exam­ple, a per­fect­ly healthy preg­nant woman may be advised by her doc­tor to avoid con­tact with cer­tain chem­i­cals in the work­place because of the dan­ger they pose to a preg­nan­cy, or may be advised to stay off high lad­ders or avoid heavy lift­ing in the final weeks of preg­nan­cy because preg­nan­cy leaves one more vul­ner­a­ble to bal­ance prob­lems or injuries from lifting.

She argues that alle­ga­tions of dis­crim­i­na­tion from Wal­mart employ­ees made after the pol­i­cy change took effect sug­gest that not much has changed. Whether the company’s pol­i­cy is insuf­fi­cient or is being applied too nar­row­ly, Mar­tin says, It is a prob­lem under preg­nan­cy dis­crim­i­na­tion law, as well as a huge prob­lem for the preg­nant work­ers affected.”

Wal­mart, how­ev­er, stands by its new pol­i­cy and has denied that the change was a result of out­side pres­sure,” assert­ing on its web­site respond­ing to OUR Wal­mart that the company’s new pol­i­cy goes well beyond fed­er­al and most state laws, includ­ing the Amer­i­cans with Dis­abil­i­ties Act and the Preg­nan­cy Dis­crim­i­na­tion Act” and is best in class.”

Wal­mart isn’t the only major cor­po­ra­tion accused of insuf­fi­cient­ly accom­mo­dat­ing preg­nant work­ers. This fall, the US Supreme Court will hear a case against the Unit­ed Par­cel Ser­vice (UPS) sim­i­lar to the one aimed at Wal­mart: A preg­nant work­er asked for a break from heavy lift­ing and was told instead to take her unpaid leave.

Wal­mart and UPS both argue that their pol­i­cy com­plies with the 1978 Preg­nan­cy Dis­crim­i­na­tion Act. But this defense, regard­less of whether or not it is true, assumes that fed­er­al law pro­vides ade­quate pro­tec­tion for preg­nant work­ers — an assump­tion that many advo­cates contest.

Pres­i­dent Oba­ma called for reforms to preg­nan­cy pro­tec­tions this sum­mer, acknowl­edg­ing that the US trails oth­er coun­tries such as France, which pro­vides up to three years of paid leave for moth­ers. The US, in con­trast, has no fed­er­al­ly man­dat­ed paid parental leave, and in all sec­tors of the work­force, women face the dilem­ma of choos­ing between a healthy preg­nan­cy and the pay­check they rely on.

The Unit­ed States is far behind oth­er coun­tries in what we pro­vide for preg­nant women and for new par­ents,” says Lin­da Mer­ic, Exec­u­tive Direc­tor of 9to5, a nation­al advo­ca­cy group for work­ing women.

She points out that, because the gov­ern­ment has not cre­at­ed strong laws pro­tect­ing preg­nant work­ers as in most indus­tri­al­ized nations, only 12 per­cent of US work­ers have access to paid fam­i­ly leave (includ­ing mater­ni­ty and pater­ni­ty leave); this sta­tis­tic drops to about 5 per­cent for low-wage workers.

The work­ers who can least afford to be out of work with­out pay are the ones being put in that posi­tion,” says Meric.

How Wal­mart treats women — and not just preg­nant women — has incit­ed action from work­ers before. In 2001, an employ­ee named Bet­ty Dukes filed a class-action law­suit against the com­pa­ny, alleg­ing that she was denied the train­ing she need­ed for pro­mo­tion because of her gen­der. The num­ber of women rep­re­sent­ed by the law­suit grew to 1.5 mil­lion, becom­ing the largest civ­il rights class action law­suit against a pri­vate employ­er in US his­to­ry before reach­ing the Supreme Court. The case was ulti­mate­ly dis­missed on a tech­ni­cal­i­ty.

It makes sense that [Wal­mart] would not have a thought­ful way of accom­mo­dat­ing preg­nan­cy,” says Liza Feath­er­stone, who wrote about the case in her 2004 book Sell­ing Women Short, because preg­nan­cy is a thing that has to do with women and this is a com­pa­ny that has a per­va­sive dis­re­gard for women.”

But she cau­tions that law­suits have proven to be an inef­fec­tive means of reform­ing the country’s largest pri­vate employer.

Bet­ty Dukes is still work­ing as a greeter at Wal­mart, and she is still bare­ly get­ting by, and her com­plaints have not been resolved,” says Feath­er­stone. It absolute­ly can not be the only strategy.”

She sees Respect the Bump’s actions as a way for­ward. It’s def­i­nite­ly going to take those kinds of con­fronta­tion­al strategies,”

Respect the Bump will con­tin­ue with its week­ly con­fer­ence calls and Face­book chat room, and is plan­ning anoth­er ral­ly in Cal­i­for­nia. Holmes, for one, is proud of how the group’s cam­paign is shap­ing up.

I’m pret­ty sure we have a lot of vic­to­ries com­ing,” she says. “[Wal­mart has] no choice but to change because there’s a lot of Wal­mart work­ers that have jumped on board.”

Amien Essif is a reg­u­lar con­trib­u­tor to Work­ing In These Times and main­tains a blog called The Gazine, which focus­es on con­sumerism, gen­tri­fi­ca­tion, and tech­nol­o­gy with a Lud­dite bent. His work has also appeared on the Guardian and Coun­ter­Punch. You can find him using Twit­ter reluc­tant­ly: @AmienChicago
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