How Walmart's 'Support' for Pregnant Employees Falls Short

This Sept. 19, 2013 photo shows the sign of a Walmart store in San Jose, Calif. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
This Sept. 19, 2013 photo shows the sign of a Walmart store in San Jose, Calif. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

Walmart, faced with the threat of a high-profile lawsuit and pressure from its workers, has adopted a new policy for supporting pregnant employees when they need short-term changes at work. It now states that it will provide accommodations for "temporary disabilities caused by pregnancy." That will obviously help women with diagnosed pregnancy complications, like gestational diabetes or urinary tract infections. But what about women with "healthy" or "normal" pregnancies? Will they also have a right to any accommodations -- like avoiding heavy lifting or access to a stool -- that their medical providers might suggest?

Although common sense dictates the answer should be "yes," the relatively narrow wording Walmart has chosen for its policy suggests the company might not grant such requests if made by women with "healthy" pregnancies. This would be unfortunate -- and also often illegal. Walmart should revise its new policy to make clear that it will provide medically recommended accommodations for all its pregnant employees.

Walmart, the country's largest employer, has been accused of regularly denying pregnant employees' requests for temporary changes at work. And Walmart is not alone. A report by women's advocacy groups documents that it is commonplace for employers to refuse to provide pregnant workers even low-cost workplace supports, like permitting a worker to carry a water bottle, sit periodically on a stool, or refrain from climbing high ladders, that may be recommended. To add insult to injury, when pregnant employees ask their employers for help addressing medical needs that arise out of pregnancy, employers frequently refuse and then force the workers out onto unpaid leave. This means that pregnant employees lose their paychecks and use up their available time off before the baby is even born. And when that leave runs out, many workers lose their jobs.

Against this sorry baseline, Walmart's new policy is a welcome -- and overdue -- improvement. But it is not enough. As written, Walmart's policy probably meets the minimum standards of federal disability law, but Walmart (and most other companies) must also comply with the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA). This federal law, enacted more than 35 years ago, requires employers to treat pregnant employees the same as other workers with health conditions that affect their ability to work. Under the PDA, if Walmart makes it possible for a man with a bad back to avoid lifting heavy boxes, it must grant the same request from a pregnant employee who has been advised to avoid heavy lifting, whether or not she has a diagnosed "disability." If Walmart interprets its new policy narrowly -- and refuses to provide as much support for "healthy" pregnancies as it does for other health conditions -- it will violate the PDA. It will also run afoul of a growing number of state and local laws, known as "Pregnant Workers Fairness Acts," that specifically require employers to provide reasonable accommodations for all pregnant employees who need them, unless they can show that doing so would impose an undue hardship on the business.

Even worse, if Walmart does not revise its policy, its employees who are pregnant may think they need to develop a diagnosed "disability" before they ask for accommodations their medical providers have recommended to help ensure they aren't injured or don't develop complications. That would obviously be a perverse result, bad for the company's bottom line and bad for the health and safety of its workers. The women of Walmart deserve more.