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I offered to come back from maternity leave 3 days after I gave birth — and my employer said it wasn’t fast enough

Melissa Petro


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’

pregnant coworker

For Petro's employer, coming back to work three days after giving birth wasn't fast enough. 
Getty Images

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

freelancer working from home laptop

The gig economy offers flexibility, but it also means freelancers do not get the same rights traditional workers have. 
Hero Images/Getty Images

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.

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