clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Planned Parenthood is facing criticism for its treatment of pregnant workers

Allegations against the organization show America doesn’t take working parents seriously.

A Planned Parenthood clinic in Chicago, Illinois, on May 18, 2018.
A Planned Parenthood clinic in Chicago, Illinois, on May 18, 2018.
Scott Olson/Getty Images
Anna North is a senior correspondent for Vox, where she covers American family life, work, and education. Previously, she was an editor and writer at the New York Times. She is also the author of three novels, including the New York Times bestseller Outlawed.

Planned Parenthood provides reproductive health care to millions of Americans every year, including helping many patients have healthy pregnancies.

But multiple employees at the nonprofit say that when they were pregnant or had just given birth, they faced workplace discrimination, including bosses who ignored their medical needs, as Natalie Kitroeff and Jessica Silver-Greenberg of the New York Times reported on Thursday. Most Planned Parenthood health centers do not provide paid parental leave for employees, forcing one employee to turn to crowdfunding to pay her baby’s medical bills.

“For confidentiality reasons, we cannot comment on specific allegations,” said Planned Parenthood president Leana Wen in a statement to media on Thursday, “but make no mistake: if concerns are raised or complaints brought, we investigate immediately and, where necessary, take decisive action.” She also said the organization was working to strengthen its parental leave policies.

The story is bigger than Planned Parenthood. The New York Times uncovered discrimination allegations at other progressive and feminist-leaning organizations as well, including Mehri & Skalet, a law firm that, ironically, is suing Walmart for pregnancy discrimination. The allegations are a reminder of the many battles facing workers who get pregnant in America today.

And in the case of Planned Parenthood, in particular, they’re a reminder that employees at nonprofits are sometimes asked to sacrifice benefits like paid leave in exchange for working for the “greater good,” especially if their jobs involve health care or other services. Employees at such nonprofits face the stereotype that if your job is taking care of other people, “you should be altruistic and the money shouldn’t matter,” Heidi Hartmann, the founder and president of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, told Vox.

Overall, the allegations against Planned Parenthood show that pregnant women and parents still struggle to get the time off and accommodations they need to take care of themselves and their families, even at workplaces where taking care of people is part of the mission.

Multiple employees say that for pregnant workers or parents, Planned Parenthood wasn’t a good place to work

Despite its mission to serve women and families, most Planned Parenthood health centers do not offer paid parental leave to their employees, the Times reports. The organization has a somewhat decentralized structure, with regional offices each managing a group of local clinics. Forty-nine of the 55 regional offices do not offer paid parental leave. Under the Family and Medical Leave Act, employers with more than 50 workers are required to provide most employees with 12 weeks of leave to care for a newborn. Importantly, however, the law does not require that the leave be paid.

Marissa Hamilton, an employee at a Colorado Planned Parenthood clinic, had a premature baby boy who required weeks of neonatal intensive care, according to the Times. Because she wasn’t getting paid during her maternity leave, she resorted to setting up a GoFundMe to cover his medical bills.

Several women told the Times that Planned Parenthood supervisors denied them accommodations they needed for a healthy pregnancy, or pressured them to take less time off after a birth. One woman, who asked not to be named, said that when she was pregnant, her bosses ignored her doctor’s note recommending frequent breaks. Another, Ta’Lisa Hairston, said that when she had high blood pressure during her pregnancy, her managers at a White Plains, New York, Planned Parenthood health center ignored doctors’ notes recommending breaks. Her hands swelled, a complication of high blood pressure, until she could no longer wear the center’s plastic gloves.

“I had to hold back tears talking to pregnant women, telling them to take care of their pregnancies when I couldn’t take care of mine,” Hairston told the Times.

Hairston’s doctors told her not to work more than six hours a day, but one day she worked much longer. She felt so sick her doctor prescribed bed rest, and a few days later, she had an emergency C-section at 34 weeks pregnant.

When she had been on maternity leave for eight of the 12 weeks mandated by the Family and Medical Leave Act, she told the Times, Planned Parenthood’s human resources department began pressuring her to come back to work. She ultimately quit.

Vincent Russell, the executive who oversees the region where Hairston worked, denies her allegations.

But other Planned Parenthood employees also described to the Times a culture in which getting pregnant or taking parental leave — or even sick days — was discouraged.

“In Miami, one current and two former employees said that women at a Planned Parenthood office were scared to tell managers they were pregnant,” Kitroeff and Silver-Greenberg report. “One of them said that, in conversations with supervisors, colleagues would often volunteer that they were not planning on having children or were gay or single.”

Meanwhile, a former human resources manager with Planned Parenthood told the Times that doctors’ notes were seen as excuses by pregnant employees for working less. “People who took sick days were perceived as lacking commitment,” Kitroeff and Silver-Greenberg write.

“As a doctor, a public health leader, and a mother, I am deeply disappointed by a recent New York Times article that included allegations about our organization not living up to our high standards and policies,” Planned Parenthood president Wen said in her statement. She added that “Planned Parenthood is launching a major new initiative to review, revamp, and strengthen our parental leave policies and ensure a culture that supports pregnant and parenting staff,” with results expected in the fall of 2019.

The allegations against Planned Parenthood are a sign of bigger problems with the way America treats pregnant and parenting workers

The Times story casts Planned Parenthood in a negative light at a time when it’s fighting various threats to its funding, including efforts by states to bar the organization from receiving Medicaid reimbursements.

But Planned Parenthood isn’t alone. As of 2017, just 15 percent of American workers had access to paid parental leave, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. One in four women goes back to work within 10 days of giving birth.

Meanwhile, it’s illegal to fire or demote workers because of a pregnancy, and employers have to give pregnant workers accommodations to help them work safely, if they would offer similar accommodations to workers with a disability.

But that doesn’t mean employers always follow the law: Almost 31,000 charges of pregnancy discrimination were filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission between 2010 and 2015, according to CNN. And employers that present themselves as feminist or progressive are far from immune to charges of discrimination. Earlier this year, Melissa Teitel, a former employee at fashion label Prabal Gurung, told Vox that her boss routinely shamed her for her pregnancy and let her go soon after she gave birth — even though the company prided itself on its feminist image, producing T-shirts with slogans like “The Future Is Female.”

Awareness of the importance of paid family leave is increasing in the nonprofit world, thanks to campaigns for paid leave in New York state and elsewhere, Hartmann said.

But Planned Parenthood, which relies on a mix of donations and government funding, some of which has been cut or threatened in recent years, appears to face a difficult calculus: to fund leave for workers, it might need to cut down on services. Christine Charbonneau, the head of Seattle’s regional Planned Parenthood office, told the Times that providing maternity leave in her region would cost $2 million a year, the whole budget of some of the organization’s health centers.

That calculus isn’t uncommon. Nonprofits that focus on providing direct services to people, many of them low-income, sometimes skimp on their own workers, Hartmann said.

“They’re very driven by their mission, and they feel like everything should be in the service of their mission,” said Hartmann of service-oriented nonprofits in general.

Part of the issue is that American society still expects people who care for others to do so out of the goodness of their hearts, not for money. As Hartmann put it, “Whenever nurses want more money, everybody says, ‘Oh, they can’t be a nurse, they want more money.’”

The expectation that care work should be altruistic, not remunerative, has to do with the fact that it’s often been done by women, at home, for no pay, Hartmann explained. Jobs “that are associated with caring and women’s former unpaid roles have a hard time getting full pay in society,” she said.

That problem can extend to benefits like paid leave as well. But paid parental leave has crucial benefits for families, from reducing infant mortality to improving maternal mental health — not to mention providing income so families can cover their bills after the birth of a child.

An increasing number of states, like New York, are offering taxpayer-supported parental leave, which takes the pressure off employers to make the kinds of zero-sum calculations Planned Parenthood faces. But until such programs are offered around the country, it will remain up to many employers to make sure their employees are able to take time off to care for their families.

“Planned Parenthood is stepping up,” Wen said in her statement. “We encourage other employers to do the same.”

Planned Parenthood has long been a leader in providing comprehensive reproductive health care to patients who need it. Time will tell whether the group can become a leader in supporting employees and their families as well.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.