Doctor Says No Overtime; Pregnant Woman’s Boss Says No Job

The New York Times OCT. 19, 2014

Angelica Valencia put the doctor’s note in her pocketbook and stepped out of her apartment in the early morning darkness. Then she started praying.

She prayed on the crowded buses and on the subway train that carried her from Queens into the Bronx to the potato-packing plant where she worked. “Please let me keep my job,” she repeated during her two-hour commute. “Please let everything work out.”

She punched in at 7:30 a.m. and handed her manager the note. Then Ms. Valencia, who was 39 and three months pregnant, went straight to work. Last year, she had a miscarriage. This time, her doctor said, she was once again high risk. No overtime, he ordered, just eight hours a day.

But it was the busy season at the Fierman Produce Exchange, and her bosses had already told her she had to work overtime. So as Ms. Valencia sorted potatoes on that Aug. 8 morning, she worried: How would her supervisors respond to the doctor’s note? At the end of her shift, would she still have a job?

This month is the first anniversary of the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, which was signed into law by former Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg on Oct. 2, 2013. The law, which went into effect in January, represents a big step forward for working women.

It requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for pregnant workers — such as providing rest and water breaks, modified schedules and light duty — so long as the accommodations don’t cause undue hardship for the employer. Makes sense, right? It’s actually critical, particularly for low-income women who sometimes get pushed out of their jobs — and into poverty — when they become pregnant.

So this year, officials from the city’s Commission on Human Rights, which enforces the law, and advocates for women have been talking to business groups, doctors, nurses, union representatives and others to ensure that women know their rights and employers know their obligations under the statute.

But Ms. Valencia said her company never informed her of her rights, even though that is required. She had no idea that the law existed.

What Ms. Valencia did know was that she could not afford to lose her job. She had worked at Fierman Produce for three years. She earned $8.70 an hour, a salary that she and her husband, a driver for a private bus company, counted on to pay bills and cover expenses on their studio apartment in Corona, Queens.

With a baby on the way, that paycheck was even more precious.

“Now more than ever, I need to work,” she said.

But when Ms. Valencia told her supervisors in July that she had a high-risk pregnancy, they told her she could work only without restrictions, she said. After taking time off to try to negotiate an accommodation with the company, she returned when her co-workers volunteered to handle the heavy machinery and lifting.

In August, she said, her supervisors insisted that she work overtime. Ms. Valencia felt so ill after two lengthy shifts that she went to the hospital and then to her doctor, who gave her the letter that she handed to her boss.

The response from the company came at about 9:30 a.m., when she was handed a letter written by Bob Ferla, the operations manager.

“Unfortunately, we as a company are not able to allow you to continue work,” wrote Mr. Ferla, who warned that her high-risk pregnancy could put her “at risk” in a work environment that was fast-paced, was very physical and involved machinery.

“Please understand we need a ‘full-duty release’ from the doctor,” he added, if she wanted to continue to work.

Ms. Valencia said she begged her managers to excuse her from overtime as her doctor had recommended. She pointed out that the company’s busy season typically ended in September, and that overtime was rarely needed during the rest of the year.

But her managers insisted that she could not work without a full-duty medical clearance. So Ms. Valencia turned in her company identification and wept as she started the long commute home.

We know that the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act can make a difference. Talk to Sonica Smith, a pregnant sales associate at Zara, a clothing store, who recently negotiated regular breaks to rest and go to the bathroom. Talk to Floralba Fernandez Espinal, who was reinstated after being forced out of her job at a thrift shop.

Both women were represented by Dina Bakst, the co-president of A Better Balance, the legal advocacy group that now represents Ms. Valencia, who hopes to recoup the wages she lost.

Reached by phone on Friday, Mr. Ferla declined to comment, saying the matter had been referred to the company’s legal counsel.

So, for the moment, there is no happy ending to this column. And I can’t help wondering how many other pregnant women are still being pushed out of jobs they desperately need.

But in Queens, Ms. Valencia is hopeful. She just found out that she’ll be having a baby girl. And she knows now that the law is on her side.

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