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When workplace conditions put women’s pregnancies at risk

Forty years ago, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act made it illegal for employers to deny a woman a job, a promotion or higher pay because she is pregnant. But a new investigation found cases when workplace conditions put pregnant women at physical risk. William Brangham speaks with Tasha Murrell, who suffered a miscarriage in 2014, and Fatima Goss Graves, CEO of the National Women's Law Center.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now, the problem of bias against pregnant women in the workplace.

    Today marks the 40th anniversary of a law known as the Pregnancy Discrimination Act. The law has been crucial, making it illegal for employers to deny a woman a job, a promotion, or higher pay because she is pregnant.

    But a new investigation has found there are important gaps in the workplace where this is simply not being observed. And it can be even more difficult with physically demanding jobs.

    That's the focus of what William Brangham explores tonight.

    And a note for viewers: This conversation discusses sensitive subjects.

  • William Brangham:

    Warehouses are some of the fastest growing workplaces in America, employing more than a million people.

    As part of an ongoing series about pregnancy discrimination in the workplace, The New York Times discovered some warehouses where pregnant women alleged that their requests for lighter duties were rejected and they then had miscarriages.

    The Times report focused on alleged troubles with one warehouse in Memphis, Tennessee. It's currently owned by a company known as XPO Logistics, which owns supply chain warehouses used by many name-brand corporations.

    Several women say they had miscarriages after what they alleged was harsh treatment at that facility.

    XPO denies all of these allegations.

    But we're going to talk about one of these cases and the larger picture here beyond just one company.

    Tasha Murrell had a miscarriage while employed at that warehouse in Memphis shortly before XPO bought it in 2014. She's now with the Teamsters, which is trying to organize a union at the same warehouse. And Fatima Goss Graves is the CEO of the National Women's Law Center.

    Welcome to you both.

  • Fatima Goss Graves:

    Thanks for having me.

  • William Brangham:

    Tasha, I wonder if you could just start off by telling us a little bit about what happened with you.

    I know you were working in this warehouse while you were pregnant back in 2014. What kind of work were you doing back then?

  • Tasha Murrell:

    We process boxes, process items that come down a conveyor belt, whether it's phones, tablets, gadgets, or whatnots.

    It's very challenging. It's very hot in that building. We do not have air. We lift boxes 45 pounds or more. And that's picking them up, lifting them.

  • William Brangham:

    And I understand, at the time, that this was causing some discomfort for you. Did you did you express that to your supervisor?

  • Tasha Murrell:

    Absolutely.

    February of 2014, I found out that I was pregnant. I immediately went to the doctor. He put on my doctor's note no heavy lifting. My supervisor saw that note, but she disregarded the note, because she still sent me to areas when I had to pick up 45-pound boxes and heavier boxes.

  • William Brangham:

    So, you're saying that you went to the supervisor and said, look, I have got a doctor's note saying I'm not supposed to lift heavy things, can I do something different?

    What was — what was the supervisor's reaction?

  • Tasha Murrell:

    Yes, I did request lighter duty, because it is lighter duty. The company accommodates who they want to accommodate.

    So I did ask for lighter duty. And I tell my supervisor that I could not lift heavy boxes. She stated to me that I should have an abortion.

    And I just looked at her because I was so shocked that she told me to have a freaking abortion. So, she eventually walked away from me. I stayed at work. Maybe 15 minutes later, I was hurting so bad.

    I went home and went to sleep. But when I got up the next morning, my mattress was like drenched in blood. My husband was there. My two kids was there. And they were like, mom, what's wrong? My husband was, like, so shocked. He didn't know what to do, you know, me crying, me in pain.

    So he rushed me to the E.R. I got to the E.R., and the doctor examined me checked me and everything. He was like, sorry, Mrs. Murrell but, there's nothing we can do. You're miscarrying now. And you just have to let it take its course.

  • William Brangham:

    I'm terribly sorry about you having to experience that.

    I know you have heard this already. The supervisor at the time says that's never what she said to you. The company has denied all of these allegations.

    They sent us a statement that said: "We were saddened to learn about Ms. Murrell's loss in 2014. While we can't speak to what happened at this site before we bought it, we have created a culture that is strongly grounded in dignity and respect. Our workplace and pregnancy accommodation policies exceed what is legally required."

    They also allege that the Teamsters union, for whom you now work, is stirring up these stories to make the company look bad.

    And I'm just curious what your reaction is to that, when you hear that statement.

  • Tasha Murrell:

    They are lying, because, again, that supervisor not only told me that, but it was several, four or five women that was pregnant at the same time that I was pregnant.

    It was like a trickle-down effect. I mean — and to try to put it on the Teamsters? No one was affiliated with the Teamsters. I now work for the Teamsters to speak out, but I wouldn't — I wouldn't dare allow anyone to downgrade the Teamsters, because they are the ones that gave us a platform, that gave the voiceless a voice.

    So I feel like this is very disrespectful to try to blame someone for their mistakes.

  • William Brangham:

    I want to turn to Fatima Goss Graves.

    When you hear a story like this, when I read about her story in The New York Times and about allegations of this kind of behavior going on in other warehouses, the thing that really struck me is that I thought surely this kind of treatment of a pregnant woman asking for lighter duty, when she has a doctor's recommendation, that that should be a legal requirement.

    But it's not.

  • Fatima Goss Graves:

    You know, I'm so grateful for Tasha and the other pregnant workers who are speaking out, because 40 years after Congress first passed the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, you would think that this wouldn't be a problem.

    What happened was, a few years ago, there was a Supreme Court decision that limited the interpretation, that basically made it harder for pregnant workers when they need accommodations to get them.

    And there has been a huge backlash to that decision. We have had over 18 states pass new laws to be more directive, to sort of say, actually, a pregnant worker shouldn't have to choose between having a healthy pregnancy and being able to stay on the job and get the income that they need, which is the really terrible choice people are having to make right now.

  • William Brangham:

    So, what does the law currently say? What is protected under law and what is not?

  • Fatima Goss Graves:

    Well, pregnant workers should know that they cannot experience discrimination on the job. So I don't want to put out misinformation on that.

    But the real challenge is around when you need an accommodation. Not all pregnant workers are going to need them. Many people — when I was pregnant at my job, which is really cushy at a desk, I didn't actually need any accommodations.

  • William Brangham:

    Same with my wife.

  • Fatima Goss Graves:

    But, sometimes, you do. And we hear from workers who need really basic things. Sometimes, they just need the ability to go to the bathroom when they need to, or be able to have water, or, working as a cashier, be able to have a stool, so they're not standing all day.

    Unfortunately, what the Supreme Court said is that an employer can make a determination that it isn't going to provide that accommodation, if it's — if it's an unnecessary burden for them.

  • William Brangham:

    There seems to be a perverse incentive in the law which says that, if you provide an accommodation for someone, then you're required to provide it for pregnant women or other women who ask for it.

    It seems to be incentivizing people to provide no accommodation whatsoever.

  • Fatima Goss Graves:

    And, unfortunately, a lot of employers have gotten more rigid and have made working conditions abusive for everyone.

    And so they say, we treat everyone equally bad, and that is our rule.

    Well, that isn't a good rule for anyone. And the conditions that she described, the heat conditions, the hours without breaks, all of those are things that they should be really fixing for all workers, but certainly for workers who need them.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, Fatima Goss Graves and Tasha Murrell, thank you both very much.

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