May 5, 2009 -- Carrie Lukas, like many working moms, has had to deal with being pregnant at work. Lukas, a vice president at the Independent Women's Forum, often writes and speaks out about social issues. This past summer, Lukas became pregnant with her third child.
"This will be my third maternity leave in four years, and it does mean that I have to take time off," said Lukas.
Pregnancy leave is an ingrained feature of the American workplace, ensuring that women won't face termination for starting families. The Pregnancy Discrimination Act says it is illegal to fire, or not hire, a woman because she is pregnant.
But moms like Lukas say the law has unintended consequences.
"If my employer decides they no longer want me as an employee, then it should be their right to fire me," said Lukas. "I understand the desire for people to have the government step in and try to protect women, but there's real costs to government intervention."
These costs are rarely talked about publicly. But it is just a fact that some employers avoid hiring people who fall into special, Congress-protected groups. After the Americans With Disabilities Act became law, it was assumed many more disabled people would enter the workplace, but a study by MIT economists found that employment actually "dropped sharply."
Holly Waters also took time off when her daughter was born. But in Holly's case, she had no choice. When she became pregnant, she was a sales consultant for the drug maker Novartis. She said she was a top performer with a promising career, but when she told her boss she was pregnant, she said, things changed.
"I was almost being pushed out the door," explained Waters.
And then, when she was about to go on maternity leave, she was fired.
"I was 7½ months pregnant. There was no way I was going to be able to go out and find a job at this point," said Waters.
Today, employers are warned that in job interviews you must never even ask questions like "Might you start a family?" But if Congress thought the Pregnancy Discrimination Act would end discrimination, it was wrong. In recent years, complaints have steadily gone up.
Laws 'Actually End Up Hurting Women'
Companies like Google, Bloomberg LP, even a maternity clothing chain, have all been sued for pregnancy violations.
And now, Waters, and some 5,000 other women, are suing Novartis.
The companies deny wrongdoing. Novartis told "20/20" it "strongly disagreed with the allegations." It also noted that Working Mother magazine had recognized Novartis as one of the 100 best employers.
Nonsense, said Waters' lawyer, David Sanford, of Sanford, Wittels & Heisler, who has filed a class action against Novartis.
"The message is that if you get pregnant you're in trouble at Novartis," said Sanford.
Sanford wants Novartis to pay his clients and his law firm more than $200 million. The lawsuit, he said, will teach Novartis and other companies not to discriminate.
"If you're pregnant, there are certain protections in place, and there should be certain protections in place," said Sanford.
Most people agree with that, but not everyone. Lukas said laws like the Pregnancy Discrimination Act may actually create problems for women.
"Sometimes the laws that are intended to help women like me actually end up hurting women like me. All of a sudden, a potential employer is looking at me and thinking, she just might turn around and sue us. That makes it less likely that I'm going to get hired," said Lukas.
And let's face it, she said, pregnant women can be costly for an employer.
"A lot of responsibilities are shifted each time I go to a doctor's appointment. That means I'm unavailable to do whatever work needs to be done during that time, which means one of my colleagues is often picking up the slack. It's an economic reality that there are costs for businesses for having pregnant women as employees," said Lukas.
Lukas said laws that deny that economic reality don't help working women.
Sanford doesn't deny that there may be costs involved with employing pregnant workers, but that doesn't give companies the right to not hire or fire a woman because she may become costly, he said.
Allowing the Job Market to Work
"If they do take that position, they'd be violating the law," said Sanford. "If companies lose money because of it, and they may, that's not necessarily a bad thing from a societal perspective."
But does society really need pregnancy discrimination laws? Lukas thinks the job market would work better without such laws.
"You don't have to hire me, and I don't have to work for you," said Lukas. "Plenty of employers would hire pregnant women. Women are incredibly productive members of the work force. We have a lot to offer. If an employer is going to discriminate against enough people, it's going to be bad for them in the long run. It's a bad business practice, and that's the best way to prevent discrimination."
For more information on pregnancy discrimination, visit the National Partnership for Women and Families home page and read its publication "Know Your Rights." Also see the pregnancy discrimination facts page of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.