Walmart Takes Faltering Step Forward in Treatment of Pregnant Employees

Walmart, the nation’s largest employer of women, has changed its policy on accommodating pregnant workers. Its new policy is to provide “reasonable accommodations” for temporary disabilities caused by pregnancy. The new policy states that the giant retailer will provide pregnant associates with the same accommodations it provides to associates with disabilities.

It is a sad thing when our nation’s largest corporation, with more than 2 million employees, must announce that it will start being “reasonable” about something as fundamental as bringing new life into the world. Still, the new policy is good news and a good step forward for Walmart employees.

Prior to the change, it was against Walmart policy to provide light duty, temporary alternative duty or reassignment to a pregnant employee, even if a doctor prescribed such changes as necessary for the well-being of the mother and baby. Walmart  refused to provide such accommodations for pregnancy, even though it offered such considerations to workers with disabilities.

The change in policy comes just weeks after the filing of a class-action pregnancy discrimination charge against Walmart with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. It is a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act for an employer to refuse to provide the same accommodations to pregnant employees that it provides to other temporarily disabled workers.

There have been a string of lawsuits in recent years against Walmart for its treatment of pregnant workers and several news stories have drawn attention to Walmart’s treatment of pregnant “associates” (Walmart’s term for its employees).

• In 2006, Heather Wiseman, who worked at a Walmart in Salina, KS, became pregnant. Ms. Wiseman was experiencing frequent urinary and bladder infections. Her doctor told her to keep a water bottle handy and drink water throughout the day.

However, Walmart had a policy prohibiting associates from carrying water bottles on the sales floor. The store refused to accommodate Wiseman; they told her she could use the water fountain. Of course, anybody who has ever hiked across Walmart’s sprawling sales floor knows how disruptive it could be to a worker’s job performance to make frequent trips to the water fountain.

Ms. Wiseman refused to give up her water bottle and was fired for “insubordination.” She filed a lawsuit, which was settled out of court.

• Tiffany Beroid, a customer service manager at a Laurel, MD, Walmart, began to have complications in her seventh month of pregnancy. Her feet were swelling, her blood pressure was not stable, and she began having dizzy spells. She gave her Walmart supervisor a doctor’s note instructing that she be placed on light duty; Ms. Beroid hoped to be assigned as a cashier or greeter.

Walmart refused her request and forced her to take unpaid medical leave before she requested it. Ms. Beroid was a nursing student, but without her income she could not make her tuition payments and was forced to miss the final exam of her nursing class. She will have to repeat the class.

Walmart’s new policy is a step in the right direction, but some Walmart detractors and advocates for pregnancy rights say the change does not go far enough. It provides accommodations to pregnant workers who are demonstrating “temporary disabilities,” but it does nothing for pregnant workers who seek to prevent problems during their pregnancy by following doctor’s orders for such things as staying off ladders and drinking extra water throughout the day.

It is well known that many Walmart employees are low-income individuals. Pregnancy brings extra expenses that put a strain on low-income families. It is just wrong that the blessing of a new life should cause an employee to fear being forced to lose income due to unwanted pregnancy leave or even termination.

Walmart has a preeminent presence in the U.S. marketplace. Its practices and policies ripple through the rest of the economy, as other companies struggle to compete with the retail giant.

As our nation’s largest employer of women, one area in which Walmart should set the example in its considerate treatment of pregnant employees. That’s what would be reasonable.