I conceived my daughter in the fall of 2012. My husband and I had just celebrated our fifth wedding anniversary — we went to Disney World and took a four-night Disney cruise — and while I cannot pinpoint the specific day when “it” happened, she was definitely the product of “Disney magic.”
Of course, since this would be our first child, we were excited. Hell, we were over the moon. And while we wanted to share the news with everybody, we decided to wait until the second trimester to be cautious. To be “safe.” The only exception we made was with our immediate family and a few close friends.
That said, as the weeks wore on (and I became progressively sicker), I realized I needed to tell the people I worked with. I needed to say something to the person I reported to at work. Especially because at the time, I was a contractor — one who was required to travel every week and work 10 to 12 hours a day. So I drafted up an email and explained my “condition.” I didn’t ask for any time off (as a contractor, I wouldn’t be eligible for the company’s maternity leave policy anyway) or other accommodations; in fact, the only thing I requested was extra bathroom breaks if and when I needed to throw up.
At the time, I didn’t think much of telling work I was pregnant. After all, this was (and is) the 21st century. Working people get pregnant all the time. Plus, my performance at this job had been great, and I was determined that my pregnancy wouldn’t change that. But the response I received stunned me: The company told me they were terminating my contract and “letting me go.”
Actually, to say I was stunned is an understatement. I was shocked and horrified, angry and visibly upset. But according to their email, the “reason” was simple: My pregnancy was a safety concern. I worked in a medical lab where I created instructional videos, i.e. I was the “medical professional” (aka hand model) used to train technicians on the proper use of medical equipment and machines.
Immediately, I called bullshit. The equipment and materials I worked with were nonhazardous. The machines were always off.
But since I was a contractor, not an employee, neither the company’s maternity policy nor the national Pregnancy Discrimination Act applied to me. My job protection was nonexistent. I didn’t have a leg to stand on.
The days following the termination of my contract were hard. I went through the stages of grief in rapid succession. I knew I was a good worker. A hard worker. I had never been disciplined or written up — and yet here I was: two-and-a-half months pregnant and unemployed.
Of course, my friends advised me to sue and/or “get 7 on my side ” — a play on the name of a local news program that helps resolve business issues and complaints — but I didn’t. For one thing, I lacked the funds, and for another, there wasn’t really anything I could do. My employer hadn’t done anything illegal.
That said, I did learn one thing while researching cases of people losing jobs while pregnant: Pregnancy and maternity-related discrimination is common. Very common. In fact, according to the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, three-quarters of pregnant women and new mothers have experienced prejudice in the workplace, while 1 out of every 9 women has actually lost their job(s). And many like me are contractors or otherwise lacking in any job protections.
Temp workers, contract workers, new employees, part-time employees and employees working for smaller companies — those not covered by the Family Medical Leave Act — are at risk, though anyone could fall victim to unfair practices.
So, what should women do? What can they do? Well, the answer is loaded and complex (and not the same for everyone). However, the first thing one should do is understand which law(s) protect you and how. For example, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act prohibits discrimination against actual (noncontract) employees “on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions.” But how? What does this protection look like, and what does it do?
Second, document all communication with your previous job, even if said job never directly admitted the end of said job had anything to do with your pregnancy (because, let’s be honest, they probably haven’t… and probably won’t). This includes keeping notes of phone calls, emails, performance reviews and/or anything else you believe will help bolster your case. Finally, know that if you want to take the matter to court, you will absolutely need to get a lawyer.
But if you, like me, are one of the millions of Americans who are contract workers or otherwise unprotected nonemployees, there may be nothing you can do about losing this particular job. But what we can all do is vote for lawmakers who will vote for better laws — and better job protection for all of us. Because no one should be shamed or punished for making the choice to work and parent.
This essay is the story of one woman’s personal experience, and neither the author nor SheKnows is able to provide legal advice. If you need more information about pregnancy discrimination and/or your rights, visit the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and/or the ACLU.