Gov. Henry McMaster recently signed the Pregnancy Accommodations Act into law. The law, which passed with unanimous support in the Legislature, will ensure that no pregnant woman in South Carolina has to choose between her job and a healthy pregnancy. Unfortunately, that is exactly what happened to me.
When I was only 3 months pregnant with my third child, I was working as the highest-ranking account executive and the only female employee at a business in Charleston.
I loved my job. But when the regional manager found out about my pregnancy, he said I would have to go home on a leave of absence. The company then required that I submit a doctor’s note clearing me to work. The doctor confirmed I was able to work but said I should avoid any heavy lifting. Though I only rarely did heavy lifting on the job and the company allowed other workers with injuries to continue working and refrain from lifting, they would not let me return to work. I wanted to keep working and needed the income, so this was devastating. I was ultimately terminated soon after giving birth.
To make matters worse, my husband and I had just made a down payment on a house and were about to close the deal. Without my income, we were forced to back out of the contract. I earned more than he did since he worked temporary jobs. So I was out of a job and no longer able to support my family. We became homeless and were placed in emergency public housing. I could no longer afford child care and had to pull my kids out of day care.
My husband and I ended up getting a divorce and I know that the downward spiral of our finances from that troubling period played a role in our marital difficulties.
I know that I am not the only South Carolinian to have experienced this problem. My own sister also faced discrimination on the job. When she was pregnant she was working at a different company in Charleston. They refused to allow her to carry a water bottle on the floor to stay hydrated, even though she was pregnant. One day, she went to work with a fever and again they would not let her carry a water bottle and delayed her lunch break. She began vomiting and eventually had to be rushed to the emergency room.
The South Carolina Pregnancy Accommodations Act will ensure that South Carolina women like me or my sister cannot be forced to choose between their paychecks and a healthy pregnancy. The law provides a clear right to accommodation for pregnancy-related medical needs absent “undue hardship” to the employer — the same familiar standard in place for workers with disabilities. South Carolina is now the 23rd state to grant explicit protections to pregnant workers, joining states including West Virginia, Louisiana, and North Dakota, where the laws also passed with virtually unanimous bipartisan support. And in a recent survey of South Carolinians conducted by Winthrop University, 81 percent of respondents said they supported requiring employers to provide reasonable accommodations unless it caused an undue hardship to the employer’s business.
The reason is simple. Accommodating pregnant workers is not just good for women, it is also good for South Carolina’s economy. When South Carolina women are forced off the job due to pregnancy, they must often turn to public assistance to stay afloat, increasing taxpayer costs.
At the same time, research shows that taking steps to reduce premature deliveries, and associated maternal and infant health complications, could save the state of South Carolina millions of dollars annually in health care costs. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control recently found that premature births cost the U.S. health care system more than $26 billion each year.
Businesses in every corner of the country recognize that ensuring fair and equal treatment for pregnant workers is good for the bottom line. Employers are already accommodating workers with disabilities pursuant to the Americans with Disabilities Act. Ensuring that pregnant workers with medical needs are afforded the same treatment as workers with disabilities would provide better guidelines for employers and help avoid costly and time-consuming litigation. The law will also increase employee productivity and morale and decrease turnover costs.
I am so grateful that no pregnant worker in the Palmetto State will ever again have to choose between her job and a healthy pregnancy like I did and I hope other neighboring states that have yet to pass a similar law will quickly follow suit.
Natasha Jackson lives and works in Charleston. She is also a community advocate with A Better Balance.