In 2005, Tashara Persky was working as the lead store clerk at an Oklahoma Dollar General Store. When she informed her supervisor that she was pregnant and that her doctor had told her not to lift more than 15 pounds, she was forced onto medical leave and then fired. She sued in federal court, but a judge with Oklahoma’s Western District Court ruled that this firing did not count as unlawful discrimination because Persky was fired due to the lifting restriction rather than the pregnancy alone.
Under federal law, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 requires that “women affected by pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions shall be treated the same for all employment-related purposes.” Unfortunately, as the example of Tashara Persky shows, this law still leaves many women vulnerable to discrimination. Pregnant women can be forced to choose between their job and their health — between following a doctor’s orders for the safety of their child and bringing home money to provide for that child — even when employers could accommodate those women at little to no expense.
Currently the Oklahoma legislature is considering a bill to address this problem. HB 2897 by Rep. Scott Inman (D-Del City) requires employers to provide pregnant workers with reasonable accommodations if the employee, employer, or a health provider believe the work could cause injury to the worker or their baby. You can download an OK Policy fact sheet about this bill here.
Under the bill, reasonable accommodations must be met unless it would cause undue hardship on the employer. “Undue hardship” is defined as “any action that requires significant difficulty or expense when considered in relation to factors such as the size of the business, its financial resources and the nature and structure of its operation.” For a police officer or a postal carrier, reasonable accommodation may mean desk duty; for a grocery clerk it could mean a stool to sit on; for a restaurant server it could mean extra breaks. These small changes could make a big difference for the health of a mother or child. They might even help turn around our state’s dismal infant mortality ranking.
A large number of families stand to benefit from these protections. Nationally, women comprise half the labor force . Forty percent of households with children have a mother as the primary or sole earner, and many others depend on two incomes to make ends meet. In Oklahoma, 30,383 out of 52,568 pregnant women, or about 58 percent, were in the workforce in 2014. Oklahoma matches the national trend of women working longer into their pregnancies, and many of these mothers cannot afford to be terminated or take unpaid leave.
If HB 2897 does become law, Oklahoma will join sixteen states, including Texas, Louisiana, and Nebraska, in providing these important protections for pregnant workers. Requiring pregnancy accommodations by law can be a great way to strengthen Oklahoma families and protect the health and financial stability of new mothers and their babies.