Wal-Mart in hot water again for allegedly treating pregnant workers like dirt

"I was forced to choose between a healthy pregnancy and my paycheck," says the woman behind the lawsuit

Published December 18, 2014 4:17PM (EST)

  (Reuters/Kevork Djansezian)
(Reuters/Kevork Djansezian)

A former Wal-Mart employee who says that during her pregnancy she was asked to work with harsh chemicals, told she couldn’t sit down and eventually fired for taking sick days has filed a federal claim against the retail giant.

Candis Riggins says that she isn’t the only pregnant worker who was discriminated against by Wal-Mart. And despite having a policy stating it will make “reasonable accommodations” for pregnant workers, Riggins alleges that Wal-Mart made it virtually impossible for her to safely work through her pregnancy.

“I made it clear to my supervisors that I wanted to keep working and that I could do several other jobs well,” Riggins said this week in a statement. “I just needed to keep away from the chemicals, but Wal-Mart said, ‘No,’ even though I know they gave light duty to a coworker of mine when he hurt his back. Finally, I was forced to choose between a healthy pregnancy and my paycheck. No pregnant worker should have to make that decision.”

In the claim, Riggins states that the chemicals she was forced to work with while cleaning bathrooms at the store made her ill, and that bending over for hours at a time caused her severe back pain. The pain became so intolerable that she went to see a doctor, who recommended lighter duty during the rest of her pregnancy. When she went to her supervisor with this information, she was moved to mopping and sweeping the store, work she said still exacerbated her back pain and involved chemicals that made her ill.

Finally, she was moved to be a greeter at the door. But the time on her feet, at least 8 hours, according to the claim, was still hard on her, so she asked if she could sit on a stool. She was told she could not sit, despite other workers with injuries being allowed to sit while greeting customers. According to the claim, “Wal-Mart has engaged in a pattern or practice of gender discrimination against female sales associates and in policies or practices that have a disparate impact against women.”

As pointed out in the Daily Beast, which obtained the full complaint, this isn’t the first time Wal-Mart has been in the news for allegedly discriminating against pregnant workers. In March, a class-action lawsuit against the retailer claimed it failed to provide “reasonable accommodations” for pregnant workers, resulting in a change in company policy. But workers, lawyers and advocates say the policy doesn’t go far enough to accommodate all pregnant workers who require a change in duties during their pregnancies, and that enforcement is uneven.

“Wal-Mart has made only the bare minimum of accommodations for its pregnant workers,” said Ellen Eardley, a partner at D.C.-based law firm Mehri & Skalet, and an attorney involved in the case, in a report by Jessica Mason Pieklo at RH Reality Check. “Wal-Mart’s policy accommodates women with disabilities caused by pregnancy, but in practice Walmart does nothing to accommodate the vast majority of pregnant women who are healthy, yet still may need a temporary change in duties.”

Other Wal-Mart employees organizing for better pay and better working conditions have also made clear that what Wal-Mart policies say and what Wal-Mart does can often be two very different things.

Earlier this year, I interviewed Tiffany Beroid, a former Wal-Mart employee who says the retailer illegally fired her after she started organizing in response to anti-worker, anti-family policies. “Their public image is that they are a family-oriented company and that they work with every individual to accommodate his needs; however, it isn’t a fact,” she said at the time.

“Recently, we made a change where we had access to a full 40 hours, which eventually went national. But even though it’s a national policy, Wal-Mart doesn’t notify employees that it exists,” she explained. “Their image, publicly, they’ll say they are a family-oriented company. But when it really comes down to it, they’re not. Because they don’t enforce their own policies for parents or associates working there.”

Organizers like Beroid have scored major victories against Wal-Mart, but, as she told me, “They’re not actually enforcing the changes.”

The push from Riggins to get the retailer to follow the law comes only weeks after the Supreme Court debated the scope and meaning of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act. In that case, Peggy Young sued UPS for putting her on unpaid leave -- costing her income and her health insurance -- during her pregnancy rather than accommodate her temporary needs with a change in duties.

The question in both cases is, as writer and activist Erin Matson commented after the SCOTUS oral arguments, "Should other people have the power to bring your economic life to a halt because you are pregnant?"

Updated: Wal-Mart issued the following statement to Salon:

Walmart is a great place for women to work, and our pregnancy policy is best in class and goes well beyond federal and most state laws. We take each individual situation seriously and we’ll work with our pregnant associates to make sure we provide reasonable accommodations when they are requested. If a manager hasn’t followed our policy, we want to know about it so we can address it and take appropriate action.


By Katie McDonough

Katie McDonough is Salon's politics writer, focusing on gender, sexuality and reproductive justice. Follow her on Twitter @kmcdonovgh or email her at kmcdonough@salon.com.

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