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Elizabeth Warren says she was fired for being pregnant in 1971—that still happens today

Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) greets an overflow crowd outside of a town hall event on August 17, 2019 in Aiken, South Carolina.
Sean Rayford/Getty Images

Sen. Elizabeth Warren is a front-runner in the 2020 Democratic primary race and, according to polling aggregation site RealClearPolitics, she and former vice president Joe Biden are virtually tied in national polls.

As her campaign has gained traction, a story that Warren often tells on the campaign trail — about getting fired from her first teaching job for being pregnant — has been put in the spotlight. The story has resonated, at least in part, because pregnancy discrimination is still common today.

In 1970, Warren, who studied at the University of Houston to become a public school teacher, got her first teaching job as a part-time speech pathologist for special-needs children in Riverdale, New Jersey. She said she was not offered the position the following year because she was visibly pregnant with her daughter, Amelia.

Conservative websites have accused Warren of lying, highlighting minutes from a Riverdale Board of Education meeting in April 1971 that states the board unanimously approved Warren to work two days per week, as well as minutes from a June 1971 meeting that state Warren's resignation was "accepted with regret."

(Warren gave birth to her daughter in September of 1971, so it is likely that she was not visibly pregnant when her contract was extended in April, but was visibly pregnant when she left the role in June.)

The senator has since stood by her story.

"When I was 22 and finishing my first year of teaching, I had an experience millions of women will recognize. By June I was visibly pregnant — and the principal told me the job I'd already been promised for the next year would go to someone else," wrote Warren on Twitter.

"This was 1971, years before Congress outlawed pregnancy discrimination — but we know it still happens in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. We can fight back by telling our stories. I tell mine on the campaign trail, and I hope to hear yours."

Pregnancy discrimination today

Still, stories like Warren's are not uncommon today.

According to The New York Times, "Pregnancy discrimination is widespread in corporate America. Some employers deny expecting mothers promotions or pay raises; others fire them before they can take maternity leave."

In 2018, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission received 2,790 federal cases of pregnancy discrimination. But Gillian Thomas, senior staff attorney of the American Civil Liberties Union's Women's Rights Project told CNBC Make It that these figures significantly underestimate how many workers experience pregnancy discrimination each year.

Thomas cited an analysis from the National Partnership on Women and Families that estimated some 250,000 pregnant workers do not get accommodations they are entitled to each year. She also pointed out that between 1997 and 2011, pregnancy discrimination charges filed with the EEOC increased by nearly 50%.

Pregnancy discrimination is "exceptionally common" and appears in many forms, she said. "It ranges from the most kind of plain vanilla discrimination that a lot of people think is a thing of the past, where you tell your employer on Monday that you're pregnant and you're fired on Tuesday."

Thomas continued: "Statistics tell us that's especially common among the low-wage workers and workers of color. Presumably, employers think they can get away with this more easily with that population."

While explicit cases like these — and like the one Warren describes — still occur, there are also less obvious ways that employers discriminate against pregnant workers today.

"There's also subtler discrimination — although not subtle to the people who are experiencing it," said Thomas. "Things like you give notice of your pregnancy and suddenly you're not taken on that big business trip to Asia because your boss thinks you don't want the long plane ride or to be away from home. That sort of benevolent paternalism discrimination, as well as stereotyping that you're going to be less committed, is common."

As for Warren's story, Thomas said she is not surprised. "As bad as it is now, it used to be exponentially worse," she said. "And anyone who doubts that needs to read a history book."

Know your rights

In 1978, Congress passed the Pregnancy Discrimination Act as an amendment to the Civil Rights Act. The PDA makes it illegal to "discriminate against a woman because of pregnancy, childbirth, or a medical condition related to pregnancy or childbirth" or to retaliate against a person who has come forward about discrimination.

In 2015, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission under the Obama administration issued a guidance on the PDA.

That guidance clarified that the PDA "covers all aspects of pregnancy and all aspects of employment, including hiring, firing, promotion, health insurance benefits, and treatment in comparison with non-pregnant persons similar in their ability or inability to work."

This means that being pregnant cannot impact if you are hired, fired or denied a promotion by an employer. You are also legally entitled to work as long as you are willing and able to. The Affordable Care Act also gives pregnant workers the right to pump breast milk. Simply put, you cannot be treated differently or harassed because you are pregnant.

(Here is a list of pregnant worker rights according to the ACLU. If you have experienced any of these forms of pregnancy discrimination you can arrange a free appointment with an EEOC counselor.)

Correction: This report was updated to correct the attribution for the data cited by Thomas. The estimate about 250,000 pregnant workers not getting proper entitlements every year was from the National Partnership on Women and Families.

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