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The Daily Tar Heel

UNC employee files complaint alleging pregnancy discrimination

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Jessica Haiges, a member of the N.C. Public Service Workers Union, is facing discrimintation due to being pregnant. Haiges is employed as a Environmental Health Safety Specialist by UNC.

When UNC Environment, Health and Safety employee Jessica Haiges found out she was pregnant in October, she requested accommodations because she works closely with toxic chemicals as a hazardous materials specialist.

Haiges requested accommodations for her condition through the University's Equal Opportunity and Compliance Office. When she saw that the EOC office could take up to 30 days to respond later that month, she notified her employer and a human resources representative in her department. 

Fromwhen she notified her employer of her concern regarding her position and pregnancy on Oct. 24 until early December, Haiges was assigned alternative tasks within the EHS department. 

Haiges' doctor recommended to the EOC office on Nov. 1 that Haiges be allowed to avoid all toxin exposure while pregnant. The EOC office requested specific information from her medical provider about which chemicals may be hazardous and the possible solution of personal protective equipment multiple times. The appropriate documentation about the PPE was provided on Nov. 27, according to the EOC office. 

Haiges said the EHS department determined she could work with a respirator after she returned with an updated statement from her OB-GYN. As a  pregnant person with asthma, Haiges said her oxygen saturation dropped to 94 percent. 

The Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine recommends keeping oxygen saturation at above or equal to 95 percent in pregnant individuals. 

On Nov. 29, Haiges filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging pregnancy discrimination.

She said her OB-GYN then advised against wearing the respirator. In early December, the EOC office and the EHS department began working with Haiges to look for a job reassignment. 

Jeffrey Hirsch, a law professor at UNC, said reassignment can be a reasonable accommodation employers might provide for pregnancy-related conditions. 

“In this case, if there’s actually available office work that needs to be done and there’s not enough people to do it, then yeah, that seems totally reasonable,” he said about the assignment of alternative tasks adjacent to Haiges' position. “On the other hand, if they don’t have any excess office work — you might call it ‘light duty work’ — that might not be a reasonable accommodation in this specific case.”

Haiges was told there were no more alternative work duties for her in her department because the administrative work associated with her role was "very limited." A university official said there were no openings that she could be reassigned to in the EHS department and suggested Haiges look "elsewhere across the University." 

She said she was also told that it was unclear whether she was qualified for a majority of possible reassignments. Haiges said the only reassigned position she was offered was an administrative assistant position with at least a $10,000 pay cut.

Haiges said she was placed on leave under the the Family and Medical Leave Act on Dec. 20, long before her due date, despite not wanting to be on it. The FMLA  is generally only meant to be used for family or medical emergencies, such as giving birth.

Haiges’ due date is in June, but her FMLA leave —which she said provides unpaid job-protected leave for no more than 12 weeks during any 12-month period — will run out in mid-March.

"I’ll only be more pregnant at that point, so I’m thinking that I’m probably going to lose my position and lose my health care, and it’s really pretty terrifying,” she said.

According to the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, it is unlawful for an employer to require a qualified employee to take paid or unpaid leave if another reasonable accommodation can be provided. The PWFA requirement of reasonable accommodations for pregnant workers includes limiting exposure to chemicals deemed unsafe for pregnancy.

The Daily Tar Heel reached out to a number of professionals in the EHS department and the EOC office, but no individuals provided comment. UNC Media Relations said in an email that the University is aware of the complaint but cannot comment on confidential personnel matters.

Now, still five months from her due date, Haiges is receiving time off donated by other University and state employees. Employees who have this time in reserve can donate it to another employee in the case of a prolonged medical condition.

Over winter break, Haiges contacted UE Local 150, the North Carolina Public Service Workers Union. The union posted about Haiges' situation on Facebook, asking its followers to donate to her GoFundMe and donate shared leave.

As a right-to-work state, North Carolina bans public sector employees from collective bargaining or entering into contract negotiations with their employers. 

“Clearly they should have taken the initiative to acknowledge that she is an employee of the University," Dante Strobino, the international representative for the UE 150, said

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