Black women have historically faced hurdles in the workplace that impact their health. The federal government has taken notice.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) hosted a webinar in April on how workplace conditions can harm maternal health and outlined the legal protections that can support Black mothers during pregnancy and after giving birth.
"The EEOC engages in significant outreach and enforcement efforts with other federal agencies … to protect the rights of pregnant and parenting workers," said Charlotte Burrows, EEOC chair. "Pregnancy [issues in the workplace] impact Black women, in particular."
Clarke Wheeler is a federal policy manager at Black Mamas Matter Alliance, an Atlanta-based organization dedicated to advocating, driving research, building power and shifting culture for Black maternal health, rights and justice.
Wheeler explained that workplace bias, from racial microaggressions to hair discrimination, can perpetuate chronic stress that leads to sleep issues, anxiety, depression and several other health complications in Black women.
Discrimination can also prevent Black women from accessing the health care wellness activities and rest needed to preserve their health and well-being.
"Historically, Black women have been … subjected to workplace discrimination and mistreatment," Wheeler said. "This has been, and continues to be, detrimental to Black women's health as well as their overall safety and human dignity."
The Impact of Low-Wage Jobs on Black Mothers
Reports show that Black women are overrepresented in low-paying jobs like food service and domestic work. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates that the percentage of Black women who are full-time minimum-wage workers is higher than that of any other racial group.
Many of these low-paying, hourly positions lack robust medical coverage—if they have any at all, said Megan Simmons, policy director at the National Birth Equity Collaborative in New Orleans.
"Oftentimes, when you don't have medical benefits, you don't engage in preventative care," she said. "It lends itself to [Black women] showing up in doctor's offices when their medical concerns have become worse than they had to be. This can lead to doctors having to take extreme measures to preserve your health."
Kameron Dawson, senior staff attorney of A Better Balance in Nashville, Tenn., added that low-wage work can be physically demanding with inconsistent work schedules that can lead to pregnancy-related complications such as pre-eclampsia and pre-term births.
"Many full-time workers in low-wage jobs are not allowed to have the flexibility when it comes to taking breaks," Dawson said. "Low-wage work can also be physically demanding, requiring standing and movements for long periods of time."
Dawson recently heard from a Black woman who worked in a warehouse. The woman requested from her employer a lifting restriction during her pregnancy. Her supervisor continuously ignored her requests and routinely instructed her to lift boxes that weighed as much as 45 pounds.
"One day, after a long shift of handling heavier boxes, she unfortunately miscarried," Dawson said. "This is part of a larger, systematic issue where Black women are continuously facing both race and sex discrimination at work—and they're often unsupported."
Wheeler said Black women who are pregnant are often blamed for poor health outcomes.
"Black women and birthing people are often told to take better care of themselves throughout pregnancy and postpartum, eat healthy foods, get enough sleep, etcetera," she said. "All of which may be extremely difficult to impossible to achieve given the wide range of constraints that Black pregnant and postpartum people may be facing, including from their workplaces."
[SHRM Resources and Tools: What You Need to Know About Pregnancy Discrimination]
New Laws Protect Pregnant Workers from Discrimination
Pregnant Black women in high-paying jobs can also face discrimination that compromises their well-being.
Natasha Jackson was the highest-ranking account executive and the only female employee at a furniture store in South Carolina. But she was forced to take unpaid leave when she requested accommodations to avoid occasionally lifting heavier items while she was pregnant.
Jackson's employer eventually fired her after refusing to accommodate her pregnancy.
"We had just made a down payment on a house," Jackson said during a February press conference alongside President Joe Biden. "Without my income, we backed out of that, and ended up homeless and needing emergency public housing. All in a matter of months."
Dawson said federal laws like the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act and the Pump For Nursing Mothers Act, both of which were approved by Congress last year, can significantly impact the economic security of Black working mothers.
"These federal policies develop equitable workplaces and encourage workers to communicate their health needs to their employer without facing retaliation or being shamed," Dawson explained.
Lack of supportive employer policies and protections under federal and state law can create a "chilling effect" for low-wage workers, Dawson said. She implored companies to offer reasonable accommodations for pregnant and working mothers to support their physical, mental and financial well-being.
"Too many Black mothers have had to choose between their job and their pregnancy," Dawson said. "When we think about ways to increase equity in the workplace, we have to consider adding greater access to flexible scheduling, paid leave and paid sick time."