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Should employers be entitled to punish women for poor choices?

I had a heated debate on Facebook this week over the issue raised in this opinion piece in The New York Times that argues that anti-discrimination laws don’t go far enough to protect women who lose their jobs because they are pregnant.

The woman who tipped off the Facebook debate is a human resources manager who took exception to the article on the basis that it misrepresented the type of pregnant women who lost their jobs because they needed more bathroom breaks or couldn’t do heavy lifting. The article characterized them as married women who had planned their pregnancies.

In this woman’s experience pregnant women in low waged jobs are not “stable adults” who have “taken the time to plan for a child,” but rather uneducated young women who are only pregnant as the result of their own poor choices.

And, in her opinion, because these pregnancies are outside of marriage and were not planned, firms should be entitled to treat these women differently than they would “more responsible” women.

Just in case you are currently feeling that you might have accidently steped back in time I just want to assure that, yes, it is still 2012.

According to The New York Times piece pregnant women are under protected by the law in that employers cannot discriminate against a woman simply because she is pregnant, but they can dismiss her if she requests accommodation for that pregnancy.

For example, a woman whose job it is to stand behind a cash register all day can be dismissed, in some states, if she needs a chair to be able to continue safely working.

Because the law fails to protect women who require accommodation due to pregnancy, it opens the door to an entirely different type of pregnancy discrimination – that based on an employer’s judgment of a woman’s fitness to be a mother in the first place.

The standard economic argument says that any workplace discrimination is ultimately inefficient behavior for firms because the most profitable behavior is to make decisions based solely on worker productivity, not based on the personal characteristics of the person doing the job.

You may want to argue that the need for accommodation during pregnancy does suggest that a worker is less productive, but that is a different issue entirely since what we are comparing here are single pregnant women verses married pregnant women and there is no systematic reason why a woman who is married should be more productive than a woman who is not.

Firms might believe that their discriminatory behavior will discourage other women from becoming pregnant in the future. But the cost of an accidental pregnancy to a young unskilled worker is already very high. If firms believe that adding the threat of future job loss to those costs will change the decisions made at the time of conception, I believe they are sadly mistaken. Dismissing single pregnant women is unlikely to reduce the probability that other employees have unplanned pregnancies.

What it may do, however, is encourage women who might have otherwise wanted to keep their babies, or to put them up for adoption, to choose abortion instead, rather than risk losing their jobs later in their pregnancy.

The Americans With Disabilities Act requires that employers provide reasonable accommodations to employees with a disability. As of right now, being pregnant is not considered a disability and therefore pregnant women are not protected under the law (unless they have medical complications). If they were, however, this law would protect women who needed a little assistance to continue being productive members of the workforce in the final months of their pregnancy.

I personally don’t see any difference between employers deciding that a young unmarried pregnant woman is irresponsible and therefore unentitled to support in the workplace and employers deciding that a young man who has broken his arm in a driving accident is irresponsible and unentitled to support.

My Facebook friend would say this is more complicated than I have made it out to be and that it isn’t fair for employers and co-workers to pick up the slack for women who have made their own beds, so to speak.

I am curious to know what you think: Should employers be entitled to take into consideration the decisions workers have when deciding how much to accommodate their needs?

Photo: Uma Thurman as Fantine in Les Miserables


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