Amazon fired these 7 pregnant workers. Then came the lawsuits
When Beverly Rosales found out she was pregnant in October, one of the first people she knew she had to tell was her manager at Amazon .
Rosales knew she'd have to start taking more restroom breaks, and she was already worried that her bosses at Amazon's Golden State Fulfillment Center would have an issue. During her 10-hour shift as a tote auditor, she would scan items and fill up a bag, and send them along to the next person.
She claims those fears were justified. She said her bosses hassled her about how much time she was taking to use the bathroom and how her work pace slowed during her pregnancy.
Nearly a week after Amazon's Cyber Monday rush in November, its biggest shopping day ever, the world's largest online retailer fired Rosales, ending her two-year tenure at the 950,000-square-foot San Bernardino, California, facility. Less than two months had passed since she told her managers she was pregnant.
Similar to at least a half dozen other women who've worked at Amazon's warehouses, Rosales, who earned $15 an hour, is now suing the tech giant, claiming she was discriminated against because of her pregnancy.
CNET reviewed seven lawsuits against Amazon filed by pregnant warehouse workers who were fired over the last eight years and who've alleged that the company failed to accommodate their needs. The requests included longer bathroom breaks and fewer continuous hours on their feet, according to the lawsuits, but in all of the cases the expectant mothers were fired after telling their managers they were pregnant. Six of the cases were settled out of court.
These cases fuel the perception that Amazon and CEO Jeff Bezos have created grueling conditions at their US fulfillment centers in the rush to build the online marketplace for everything. Community activists and unions trying to organize warehouse employees have long raised concerns that the company was pushing employees to work tough jobs and closely monitoring their productivity. A years-long stream of news reports and employee complaints about poor treatment has added to the dim view of these jobs. As the company introduces consumer benefits like cutting Amazon Prime two-day shipping down to a single day, these incidents raise questions about the human cost for such conveniences.
"Amazon wants to push out as much product as possible," said Rosales, who filed her suit in January and is due in June. "They need as many people that don't need accommodations to work there. They care more about the numbers than their employees."
Rebecca Kolins Givan, an associate professor at the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations, echoed that sentiment. She wasn't surprised to hear about pregnant workers being fired at Amazon warehouses, saying those jobs are fast-paced and taxing, and require workers to consistently hit their goals.
"The system is designed to not accommodate anything that diminishes your productivity, whether that's pregnancy or anything else," said Givan, who's researched the changing nature of work for the last 20 years.
Amazon says it doesn't monitor the length of bathroom breaks, in contrast to employees in multiple lawsuits saying the company did.
"It is absolutely not true that Amazon would fire any employee for being pregnant; we are an equal opportunity employer," an Amazon spokeswoman said in a statement. "We work with our employees to accommodate their medical needs including pregnancy-related needs. We also support new parents by offering various maternity and parental leave benefits."
Amazon said it wasn't able to discuss the specifics of Rosales' lawsuit or the prior lawsuits.
The Seattle-based retail giant has made several efforts in the past year to improve its public image and promote the benefits it offers warehouse employees. In November, it raised its starting pay to $15 an hour and said it'd start advocating for a higher federal minimum wage, which is $7.25.
But that hasn't silenced critics who argue that Amazon, an employer of over 600,000 people and one of the world's most valuable companies, with a market cap of almost $1 trillion, still needs to change.
Case by case
In November 2015, Amber Sargent told her bosses that her doctor warned her against climbing ladders or lifting anything weighing more than 20 pounds. Amazon put her on a working freeze until they could make proper changes and told her to wait for a call, according to her lawsuit. She claims she didn't get paid for more than a month, and every time she called, her managers told her to keep waiting.
She returned in December of that year, and found that nothing had changed -- she was still in her same department and required to do everything her doctor said she couldn't do. Another month passed before Amazon fired Sargent, her suit stated.
Sargent's story is one of seven lawsuits filed against Amazon in the last four years by pregnant full-time employees for wrongful termination. CNET reviewed the suits and contacted the women's attorneys. Two didn't respond to requests for comment, while the others declined to speak because it'd risk violating their settlements with Amazon.
Amazon denies any wrongdoing.
"Amazon accommodates work restrictions for pregnant employees within our fulfillment centers; typically, these accommodations vary including based on the employee's particular needs," said a spokeswoman.
Yet court records showed Amazon often ignored these requests from pregnant workers despite doctors' notes.
When Cathleen Stewart, an Amazon worker in Pennsylvania, told her bosses she was pregnant in 2011, she had a doctor's note saying she needed to use the bathroom more often and, like Sargent, she shouldn't lift anything heavier than 20 pounds.
After she was reassigned to a different department, a human resources manager made an off-hand comment to Stewart, disparaging her pregnancy and saying, "I'd like to go to the bathroom a lot, too," court documents said.
In another meeting, after a late return from a bathroom break, an Amazon manager told Stewart, "being pregnant is no excuse for being late," according to her settled lawsuit.
Trudy Martinez worked at the Amazon fulfillment center in Florence, New Jersey, and had the flu while pregnant in January 2017. Martinez visited the emergency room, where a doctor told her there were difficulties detecting her baby's heartbeat. She was advised to take three days off work to rest.
According to the lawsuit, an Amazon human resources manager told her the company "does not accept doctor's notes" and fired her four days later.
Brittany Hagman told her bosses she was pregnant in November 2016, offering a note saying she couldn't lift heavy objects or run up and down stairs.
She found herself doing exactly that, and was fired two months later, after calling in sick because of a high fever.
Hagman is now part of a broader class action suit against Amazon filed by both male and female employees, accusing the company of failing to pay due wages and providing lawfully required breaks during the day.
"It is wrong for any employer no matter how large or small to discriminate against pregnant employees," said Gavin Kassel, an employment lawyer who represented four of the women in these pregnancy cases against Amazon.
Amazon's track record
Amazon is far from the only company to face scrutiny for alleged mistreatment of pregnant employees. While the federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act forbids companies from discriminating against pregnant women in hiring, layoffs or job assignments, many major US companies, including Walmart and AT&T , have been accused of unfairly treating their pregnant employees.
The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2018 registered 2,790 pregnancy discrimination claims and since 2010 has averaged about 3,520 charges a year.
In May 2018, two former AT&T workers sued the company in a federal class action lawsuit, alleging they were fired after missing work due to pregnancy-related medical care. The EEOC sued Walmart in September over pregnancy discrimination issues, claiming the retail giant violated federal law for refusing to accommodate workers' pregnancy restrictions.
Walmart and AT&T didn't respond to a request for comment.
Last May, the GMB union, which organized protests for Amazon warehouse workers in the UK, said it found in a survey a pregnant woman who was forced to stand for 10-hour shifts.
"They are telling me to work hard even though they know I am pregnant. I am feeling depressed when I am at work," the woman told GMB, according to The Guardian.
"It's been increasing," Yana Rodgers, faculty director of the Rutgers Center for Women and Work, said of EEOC pregnancy discrimination claims. "That being said, there are many women who don't file a lawsuit, because they can't afford a lawyer or they are afraid of retaliation."
Amazon's reputation for poor treatment of warehouse workers goes beyond pregnancy cases.
In April 2018, an undercover author and whistleblower found that Amazon workers in the UK developed a "toilet bottle" system because they worried about penalties over bathroom breaks.
This February, a former Amazon worker in Kentucky sued the company, claiming he was fired for taking frequent trips to the bathroom. The worker said in his lawsuit that he suffered from the digestive disorder Crohn's disease and that the company discriminated against his disability.
After an Amazon warehouse worker in Staten Island raised concerns about poor working conditions, he was fired in February. Amazon said the worker was fired over a safety violation, not for speaking out against the company.
Amazon has touted its "comprehensive benefits package," which includes up to 20 weeks of paid leave, disability insurance and health insurance. It also offers benefits called LeaveShare, which allows employees to share their paid leave with their spouse, and RampBack, which offers new moms several weeks of flexible reduced work hours.
It has said it offers employees "a climate controlled, safe workplace" and has invited politicians who've criticized working conditions at its warehouses -- including US Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez -- to visit its facilities.
Limited bathroom breaks
Several key policies for Amazon workers were repeatedly cited in these lawsuits.
The biggest issue is with Amazon's "Time Off Task" policy -- essentially time allowed for staffers to take regular breaks like going to the bathroom or to lunch.
While an office worker might have the leisure to go to the bathroom as many times as needed, Amazon warehouse workers are only given a few minutes a day, details from lawsuits show. It's varied across different cases, but they average about 30 minutes a day for 10-hour shifts.
There's no federal requirement for meal and rest breaks, but in California, where many of the women who filed the lawsuits worked, employees are mandated a 10-minute rest break every four hours.
Amazon workers routinely have to plan when they use the bathroom, often choosing to just hold it rather than risk getting fired, Rosales said. But for pregnant workers like her, that wasn't an option.
She said she showed her managers a doctor's note that said she'd need to use the bathroom more frequently, but it was ignored.
"I said, 'I'm telling you this because I'm going to have to use the bathroom more,' and she said, 'It's still against the rules,'" Rosales said. "We can't control our bladders. If we have to go, we have to go."
Rosales said she had 30 minutes of "Time Off Tasks" for the day, which meant only three 10-minute bathroom breaks. It was a five-minute walk to and from the bathrooms in the massive warehouse where she worked, and she couldn't transfer to a part of the warehouse that was closer, she said.
By the time she arrived at the bathroom, she would have seconds to use it before she had to rush back to her station, Rosales said. Every time she got back, her boss would confront her.
"When I had to go to the restroom, she literally stayed in that spot and waited for me to come back so she could talk to me about it," Rosales said. "After that, I would just hold it towards the end of the day because I didn't want to get fired."
Amazon workers also had to make "rate," a term that describes how productive they were. Going to the bathroom, having conversations and not meeting your packing quota for the day would lower your rate.
For some, that meant having to pack 125 items an hour to meet Amazon's demands. Amazon would use rate figures to justify firing warehouse workers, lawsuits showed.
Pregnant workers often found that their rate would drop, as they were making more trips to the bathroom, and also unable to lift heavy objects like they used to.
Rosales was still meeting her daily requirements for Amazon, but managers took issue with her going to the restroom a lot more, she claims. She adds that Amazon was unwilling to make accommodations for her, like transferring her to a different department or allowing for longer breaks.
When Amazon fired her, the company told her she had been taking too much time off, without acknowledging her pregnancy, she said.
'Amazon is not understanding'
Rosales has seen some colleagues who were pregnant at Amazon warehouses and able to return without any issues.
But unlike Rosales, and the many women who've sued Amazon, these colleagues often had managerial roles or supervisory positions. They weren't subject to timed bathroom breaks, and were not judged based on their "rate."
Rosales said she didn't have that privilege, and would have liked to continue working at Amazon. Despite the long hours and short breaks, she didn't have any other issues working at the warehouse -- until she was expecting.
She wishes that pregnant workers could get an hour of break time instead of the 30 minutes she had for 10 hours of work.
She hasn't found a job since Amazon fired her in November.
"Nothing was changed," she said. "Amazon never accommodated me. Amazon is not understanding."