Supreme Court could determine future of working women

Peggy Young, of Lorton, Va., with her daughter Triniti, 7, photographed in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 14, 2014. (Photo by Jacquelyn Martin/AP)
Peggy Young, of Lorton, Va., with her daughter Triniti, 7, photographed in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 14, 2014.

The U.S. Supreme Court is preparing to hear a case on Dec. 3 that will have a monumental impact on working women, their families and the financial health of our nation. The case, Young v. UPS, involves Peggy Young, a former UPS worker who was forced into unpaid leave after she told her employer that she was pregnant.

Every American should hope the U.S. Supreme Court acts affirmatively in the upcoming Young v. UPS case to protect the jobs, earnings and healthcare of pregnant workers. The outcome of this decision will profoundly impact the financial future for all of us. The decision on Young v. UPS will not only speak to the rights and value of women workers in today’s workforce; the outcome will have a profound impact on the continued growth and prosperity of the American economy.

While many supporters of Peggy Young, a former UPS worker who was forced into unpaid leave after she told her employer (UPS) she was pregnant, rightly protest for the protection of basic rights for women workers, the U.S. Women’s Chamber of Commerce asserts the outcome of this case goes beyond worker rights – extending to the very heart of American economic growth and competitiveness.

The actions taken against Ms. Young, forcing her into unpaid leave (and ultimately ending her employment) after she told her employer that she was pregnant, pinpoint a micro view of a larger macroeconomic market concern: If not respected and protected, millions of women workers, the very fuel that lit the match to America’s great economic growth over the last century, could be pushed away from the workforce.

As Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen noted: “It is no coincidence that America’s great success in the past century came as women steadily increased participation in every aspect of society. . . our economic success has been due in substantial part to the fuller participation and contribution of women to the economy.”

For decades, working women have fueled economic growth in the United States. Currently, women make up nearly half (47%) of the U.S. labor force, up from 38% in 1970. The economic effect of that work has been significant. If no additional women had joined the paid economy since 1970, U.S. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) would be approximately 75% of its current size.

During World War II, the role of women in the workforce increased dramatically. An estimated 8 million women entered the workforce during the war, approximately three-quarters of whom were married. In the 1970s, the participation rate for women in their prime years for child-bearing and early child-rearing increased from 43% in 1970 to 65% in 1980, according to report "US Women at Work." In 2012, 47% of employees in the United States were women, and 36% of full-time wage and salary workers were mothers of children under age 18.

Smart business owners recognize that their success depends on the wellness, retention, commitment and morale of their workforce. Providing reasonable accommodations and workplace flexibility responsive to employees’ needs produces benefits both for workers and the business. Looking beyond these truths for individual businesses – the productivity gains brought about through providing reasonable accommodations and workplace flexibility, and the fuel this ignites to continue and expand consumer spending, is valuable to all of us. Providing reasonable accommodations for pregnant workers is important to the national economy.

Between 2006 and 2008, two-thirds of women were working when they had their first child, and 88% of those worked into their last trimester. Almost two-thirds of American women (62%) with a birth in the last year were in the labor force in 2008. All told, working mothers who are the sole or primary earner compose 40% of all American households with children under the age of 18.

The macroeconomic impact of women as consumers is significant. Women are, by a large measure, much more significant consumers than men, and pregnant women and mothers are especially valuable consumers to the national economy. Women control 73% of household spending -- $4 trillion in annual discretionary spending. Success in integrating even more women into the workforce will have additional substantial effects on the Nation’s economy.

As our country’s aging population retires and transition out of the workplace, concerns arise about the slowing of workplace participation and consumer spending – leading to slower GDP, deeper recessions, and slower recovery periods. Economists have noted that higher female labor force participation can boost growth by mitigating the impact of a shrinking workforce.

Across the U.S., the effect of women’s lower labor force participation is already having an impact. According to a White House report, “if the United States raised female labor force participation rates to the average participation rate of the top 10 states, our economy would add 5.1 million women workers, the equivalent of a 3-4% increase in GDP.”

The macroeconomic effect of accommodating pregnant workers in their jobs is significant. Ensuring that women are able to continue working and earning income throughout their pregnancy allows them to be more effective workers, more affluent consumers, and even more important contributors to economic growth while avoiding the devastating personal effects of cutting off women from their earning potential at the precise moment of their greatest economic need.

The 500,000-and counting-members of the U.S. Women’s Chamber of Commerce encourage the U.S. Supreme Court to protect women workers and respect the valuable contribution women have made to America’s great economic success in the past century – and can continue to contribute as our significant workplace participation fuels business growth, consumer spending and the economic growth.

Margot Dorfman is the CEO of the U.S. Women’s Chamber of Commerce