Wal-Mart Stores (WMT), the nation’s largest retailer and biggest employer of women, has done something unusual: It has improved its pregnancy policies. The changes took effect in March and were reported by the Washington Post on April 5. This morning, OUR Walmart (the union-backed group calling for higher wages and better working conditions) claimed victory. So did three legal organizations. Wal-Mart says it wasn’t responding to outside pressure; it was just looking for ways to help its employees. The timing must be a coincidence.
Let’s start with a little background. Two laws prevent employers from discriminating against pregnant women: The Americans with Disabilities Act and the Pregnancy Discrimination Act. Both give employers wide latitude to interpret what qualifies as a disability and what counts as an accommodation of those disabilities. As women who work throughout their pregnancies has been increasing, the number of related complaints by pregnant women to the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission is also rising. “This is not a problem specific to Walmart,” says Liz Watson, senior counsel at the National Women’s Law Center. “The employers’ failure to accommodate pregnant women with often minor adjustments is happening throughout the economy and disproportionately falls on women in low wage jobs.”
More than a year ago, a group called A Better Balance, which advocates for workers’ rights, contacted Wal-Mart about its policies on pregnant women. The group claimed Wal-Mart was violating the law by not properly accommodating the temporary disabilities of pregnant women. Wal-Mart said it wasn’t violating the law. Early this year, the National Women’s Law Center filed an EEOC complaint on behalf of a pregnant employee whose supervisor refused to relieve her of duties that included climbing ladders with heavy boxes. Then two Wal-Mart shareholders—employees who are members of OUR Walmart—filed a proposal with the Securities and Exchange Commission requesting that the policy be changed.
In early March, Wal-Mart adopted new rules that it says offer reasonable accommodations for women with complicated pregnancies and healthy preganancies. All they need is a doctor’s note. “Our policy goes above and beyond what the law requires, it is best in class, and it exceeds what other retailers are doing,” Randy Hargrove, a company spokesman, says. When asked why Wal-Mart made the changes now, he says the decision was “the right thing to do for our associates.” The EEOC complaint didn’t influence the changes, nor did Doug McMillon’s assuming the title of chief executive officer in February. Hargrove did allow that the “shareholder resolution bought more attention to the issue.”
And this: Of all the issues that Wal-Mart faces—protests over wages, factory conditions in Bangladesh, weak sales—this one is relatively easy to address.