A pair of former Walmart employees say the nation’s largest retailer illegally required pregnant workers around the country to perform heavy lifting and other ill-advised physical tasks.
According to their lawsuit [PDF] filed in a federal court in Illinois last week, Walmart’s policies and practices concerning accommodations in the workplace for pregnant employees violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the subsequent Pregnancy Discrimination Act added in 1978.
The first plaintiff was working at Walmart when got pregnant. At one point, the complaint says, she almost slipped off a ladder during a shift.
“Because she feared for the safety of her fetus and health of her pregnancy,” the lawsuit says, she stopped climbing ladders and lifting heavy things, and her coworkers stepped in to help her perform those tasks when she needed them.
She was able to continue doing her job with this accommodation, the lawsuit says, and planned to continue working throughout her pregnancy. But after several months of this arrangement, a supervisor noticed she wasn’t using a ladder and told the plaintiff she would have to provide a doctor’s note to continue working at Walmart.
So she did, claims the complaint, but despite that note and a discussion with Human Resources, she says she was told she had to take an unpaid leave of absence though her baby wasn’t due for two more months.
When she returned to work, Walmart allegedly refused to reinstate her to her previous position — and pay grade — in the pharmacy department where she’d been working 40 hours per week. Instead, she says she was assigned to a lower pay grade position for $2 less per hour, and was moved to “various departments.” She eventually accepted a cashier position paying $9.05, still less than the $10.85 she previously made. She no longer works for Walmart.
The second plaintiff found out she was pregnant soon after she was hired in Sept. 2013, and informed her supervisor. According to the complaint, she experienced pain and bleeding and was concerned about a miscarriage or other serious complication, and sought medical help. When she was discharged after an ER visit, she was given instructions to avoid heavy lifting.
She returned to work in the deli/bakery department and notified her supervisor that she had been in the hospital because of serious health concerns about her pregnancy, and that she’d been directed by her doctor to avoid heavy lifting. She claims she attempted to give her manager the paperwork from the hospital, but that the supervisor refused to accept it.
Instead, in response, her supervisor allegedly told her, “If you can’t do [heavy lifting], you can walk out those doors,” the complaint claims.
The suit says she also made a statement expressing concern that the worker was “a liability” and trying to “cost Walmart money.” To that end, the supervisor allegedly told the worker that “she had seen Demi Moore do a summersault on television toward the end of her pregnancy, so pregnancy was ‘no excuse’” for her.
She asked another manager for a transfer to a cashier position, but claims that she was told she was ineligible for a transfer because she hadn’t worked for Walmart for long enough. So although she was anxious about maintaining a healthy pregnancy, she says she had no choice to but to perform heavy lifting at work.
Soon after, she claims she was working in the store’s deli, kneeling down and lifting heavy trays of rotisserie chicken weighing between 35 and 50 pounds when she suddenly “felt a shooting pain in her pelvic area, leg, buttocks, and back,” the lawsuit states. Her supervisor told her she could go home, and later that day, she ended up going to the hospital, and missed several days of work.
Upon her return, she was offered accommodations that she’d been denied before her injury, and was restricted to sedentary work with no lifting.
Fast forward to Jan. 2014, when the lawsuit claims the worker requested information about Walmart’s policies on taking leave for childbirth. The next time she was at work after that, the lawsuit claims a store manager “interrogated” her about her pregnancy and efforts to seek information about Walmart’s policies.
He told her that “Walmart will no longer be needing your services” and she was fired, the lawsuit claims.
The plaintiffs are seeking class-action status, hoping to represent all other women who worked at Walmart during this time. They estimate that as few as 12,000 and as many as 48,000 women could be part of the plaintiff class.
They allege that Walmart maintained a “constellation of policies and practices” regarding employee accommodations in the workplace due to health issues.
“Walmart set up a graduated system of workplace modifications that explicitly excluded pregnant employees from a wide variety of accommodations and adjustments for which non-pregnant employees, similar to pregnant employees in their ability or inability to work, were eligible,” the lawsuit states.
According to the complaint, Walmart’s prior medical-related policy singled out pregnancy as a “medical condition” that is ineligible for the accommodations afforded to other employees. The lawsuit says that the policy stated that the job aids and environmental adjustments available to pregnant employees exclude: “creating a job, removing or reducing an essential function of your job, transferring a portion of a job to another associate, light duty, or temporary alternative duty, or reassignment.”
“Non-pregnant employees with disabilities, on the other hand, were entitled to ‘reasonable accommodations,’” the lawsuit notes, including reassignment to an open vacant position and “[c]hanging non-essential job functions.”
“Had Walmart allowed other employees to assist [the plaintiffs] with their ‘non-essential job functions,’ such as climbing ladders or lifting heavy objects, or had Walmart reassigned [them] to open vacant positions, they would not have been harmed as they were,” the lawsuit says.
The lawsuit says that Walmart’s allegedly discriminatory policies and practices caused the plaintiffs and other members of the potential class to suffer injury, including but not limited to, loss of wages and other job benefits, and emotional and physical distress.
The plaintiffs are seeking compensation for physical and mental injuries, as well as costs related to the case.
In a statement to Consumerist, Walmart denied the claims of the two plaintiffs, and disagree that the claims raised are entitled to class treatment.
“Walmart is a great place for women to work,” a Walmart spokesman said. “Our policies have always fully met or exceeded both state and federal law and this includes the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Pregnancy Discrimination Act. We’ve also had a strong anti-discrimination policy, which provides more protection than required by the law. That policy has long listed pregnancy as a protected status.”
“We deny the claims of [the plaintiffs] and plan to defend the company,” says Walmart.