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Pregnant and forced off the job

On Wednesday, the Supreme Court will hear an important pregnancy discrimination case.

BAY CITY, Michigan – Lauri Huffman Wolfe was six months pregnant – and terrified.

She had been fired from her job as a manager at Speedway, a gas station convenience store, because the company said the accommodations she required made her unfit for the job, and Wolfe refused to take unpaid leave before giving birth.

“I said, ‘You can’t do this. You can’t force me off my job because I’m pregnant,’” is how Wolfe recalled her conversation with a district manager. “I said there’s laws that protect this. He said, 'We do this all the time.'” 

Wolfe has filed a lawsuit against the company. A spokesman for Speedway said they don’t comment on pending litigation.

Just how the law protects women like Wolfe – whose discrimination lawsuit is pending in a federal appeals court -- will be before the Supreme Court on Wednesday. In Young v. UPS, the Supreme Court will consider whether the 1978 Pregnancy Discrimination Act requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to pregnant workers.

University of Michigan law professor Samuel Bagenstos will argue a pregnancy discrimination case before the Supreme Court on Dec. 3, 2014.
University of Michigan law professor Samuel Bagenstos will argue a pregnancy discrimination case before the Supreme Court on Dec. 3, 2014.

“The whole point of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act is that nobody should have to choose between a pregnancy and a job,” said Samuel Bagenstos, a law professor at the University of Michigan. He represents Peggy Young, a driver for UPS who had to leave her job because the company wouldn't accommodate her temporary pregnancy restrictions.  “And yet many employers aren’t adhering to that rule.”

Lower courts have interpreted the act more narrowly, including in Young’s case. But Bagenstos argues that because UPS accommodated other workers, like injured and disabled ones, it had to do the same for pregnant ones. UPS has since changed its policies to accommodate pregnant workers. 

While this Supreme Court hasn’t exactly been friendly to workers’ rights, it’s an encouraging sign that the court took Young’s appeal. That may be because the case provides a rare occasion for bipartisan agreement, as seen by the unusual coalition of groups arguing in favor of Young in amicus briefs.

“Whether you’re prochoice or you’re anti-abortion, you should agree that women shouldn’t be forced to choose between having a job and continuing a pregnancy,” says Bagenstos. “That’s the choice a woman is put through if she is told her pregnancy isn’t being accommodated by her employer.”

The Young case could affect Wolfe's suit, since she said at least one other worker was accommodated when she was injured. Her lawsuit also alleges that the company abused the Family Medical Leave Act by trying to force her to take the unpaid, job-protected leave when she still had four months left in her pregnancy, instead of after giving birth as she preferred. After the leave term, the company wouldn't have been required to give her job back. 

In the meantime, the Wolfes are still reeling from the loss of her job. Her now-husband had already lost his job, and neither was immediately able to find another one. They had three kids to support. Eventually, they lost their home and had to move in with friends.

“No one deserves this,” Wolfe told msnbc. “We have the right to bring a baby into this world if we want. We have the right to work while we’re bringing a baby into this world.”