- Courtesy of Melissa Petro / Instagram
- Melissa Petro is a freelance writer, teacher, wife, and mother living in New York City.
- She accepted a teaching position when she was pregnant with her first child. When she told her employer the news, she was told that returning within three days wouldn’t be soon enough for their demanding student body – and that maybe it wasn’t the right time to take the job.
- Working in the gig economy often means insecurity and financial risks, she writes.
- A senior staff attorney at the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project describes pregnancy discrimination as “distressingly common,” and says it remains the ACLU hotline’s top complaint.
- In the end, Petro kept her teaching position – but found herself checking in on the class three hours into labor and responding to students’ emails from the maternity ward.
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The issue of pregnancy discrimination was thrust into the spotlight earlier this week when media outlets began questioning Democratic presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren’s claim that she was fired from her first teaching job in 1971 for being pregnant.
Reporters like Kaylee McGhee of the Washington Examiner say there’s no evidence the Senator was unfairly dismissed as result of her pregnancy, concluding that she’s “playing the victim card and crying sexism.”
But as someone who’s negotiated pregnancy and motherhood, I have little trouble believing Warren’s claim. After all, the situation occurred seven years prior to passage of The Pregnancy Discrimination Act in 1978, the federal law which prohibited employers from discriminating on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions. It was commonplace then, as it is now – 40 years after the passage of the PDA.
Come back ‘another time’
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Certainly, it was still an issue two years ago, when I was pregnant with my first. I was an experienced teacher by then, assigned to teach an online class for a new-to-me employer. Fearing it would be a consideration, only after confirming I’d gotten the teaching assignment did I mentioned the fact that I was pregnant, and due to go into labor halfway through the term. I assured the hiring personnel it wouldn’t be an issue, and promised that I’d be back online within three days of giving birth. But no, the director of the school described the fact that I was pregnant as a “concern,” and said my returning within three days wouldn’t be soon enough for their demanding student body. She closed the email by suggesting I teach for them at another time.
Maybe this employer was right, and the weeks just before and after the birth of a child weren’t an ideal time for me to be teaching. But, like 59% of Americans who live paycheck to paycheck, so long as my family needs to eat, I need to work.
Such is my plight as a freelance writer and writing instructor, one of a growing number of people participating in the “gig economy.” This is the term used to describe workers such as myself, self employed and hired on demand for single projects or assignments.
The good and bad about the gig economy
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For anyone – but for pregnant people and working mothers, in particular – there are obvious advantages to this approach to earning money: Theoretically, I have the freedom and flexibility to take projects that interest me, and work when I want. I can refuse work, and take off hours, days, or even weeks at will.
But in reality, working in the gig economy often means insecurity and financial risks. As a gig worker, what one earns is proportionate to how hard they work. Sometimes, no matter how hard I hustle, I find myself between jobs. And a lot of my labor – including the hard work of finding work – goes unpaid.
Above all, working in the gig economy means I’m afforded few to none of the rights and protections offered traditional workers, including those rights outlined in the PDA, which only protect “employees,” not “independent contractors” (aka gig workers like me).
Sure, state by state, you may find additional protections. For example, in New York City, where I live, it’s against the law to fire or refuse to hire or promote employees because they are pregnant, and employers are required to provide reasonable accommodations. But a law’s existence doesn’t necessarily mean enforcement. A report by the National Women’s Law Center and A Better Balance, for example, found over 40% of low-wage workers who are pregnant report that their employers don’t permit them to decide when to take their breaks; three-quarters of these workers aren’t able to choose start and quit times; and roughly half report having very little or no control over the scheduling of hours.
What’s more, according to the law, there’s an expectation that employers initiate and engage in a “cooperative dialogue” with pregnant employees, so that pregnant employee’s needs are met. Pregnant or not, one of the biggest challenges of gig employment is developing relationships and managing multiple employers. The year prior to my becoming pregnant, I had over a hundred different bosses sign my checks. Each of these employers worked differently but I’d describe few, if any, as “cooperative.”
After nearly a decade of freelancing, I know how it works: I either make their lives easier by giving them what they want when they want it, or next time, they hire someone else.
Pregnancy discrimination remains a top complaint
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Gillian Thomas, senior staff attorney at the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project, describes pregnancy discrimination as “distressingly common,” and says it remains the ACLU hotline’s top complaint. Speaking to NPR’s marketplace, Thomas said they range from blatant examples to more subtle forms of discrimination, including “sex stereotyping” that happens when someone announces a pregnancy. “Suddenly you’re not sent on that big business trip that you were going to be on, because your employer thinks oh, you’d rather be here at home; you’d rather be resting; it’s not safe for you to travel.”
In some circumstances, she says, employers mean well, “but they take it upon themselves to decide what is healthy for a woman and her pregnancy.” This, says Thomas, has a major impact on women’s careers.
We don’t necessarily have evidence of the challenges, but trust me when we say we feel them. With more workers moving towards nontraditional forms of employment, I fear it will only get worse. The fact that women are still the primary caregivers – for children, aging parents and ailing relatives – is a reason we drop out of workforce. Taking time off to give birth and raise infants results in gaps in our employment, and is another reason why women make less money than men. I love my work, and am relatively successful at it. But pregnancy – and, later, motherhood – has taken a toll.
In the end, I advocated for myself and managed to hold onto that teaching gig. Still, the victory felt bittersweet when I found myself checking in on the class three hours into labor, and leading online discussions and responding to students’ emails from the maternity ward.