Soon after Sharlet Pringle learned the happy news that she was pregnant in early 2017, her doctor warned she was at high risk of having a miscarriage. The doctor urged the New York City bus driver to rest and take care of herself, but working seven-hour shifts driving a route from the Flatbush bus depot in Brooklyn made that difficult. About five months into her pregnancy, Pringle started feeling excruciating pain in her pelvic area. Over the next couple months, the pain grew so unbearable that Pringle sometimes couldn’t get out of bed or walk, and would need to take off two or three sick days at a time. That summer, she pleaded with her supervisors for accommodations to work at a bus depot or yard cleaning buses—anything that would keep her off from the road for the remainder of her pregnancy.
But supervisors told Pringle that New York City Transit Authority policy only allowed for up to two weeks of work accommodations. Her other option was to take a leave of absence without pay, under the threat that she wouldn’t be eligible for a promotion after she returned. Presented with those choices, Pringle continued driving her full route until an at-work injury led to complications that forced her off the job and opened the door to her career in transit being derailed.
Now, Pringle is one of four plaintiffs—all Black women—in a lawsuit against New York City Transit Authority and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) over their mistreatment of pregnant transit workers. Both agencies are accused of violating a 2014 New York City human rights law that’s meant to protect pregnant transit workers from discrimination. The legal efforts have been underway since March 2019, first spearheaded by Crystal Young, a train conductor who has worked at New York City Transit in multiple positions for nearly two decades. Of the more than 50,000 subway and bus workers in New York City, nearly 6,500 are Black women. And this isn’t the only lawsuit against MTA for allegedly discriminating against pregnant workers.
Transit first, family second
For Pringle, her situation took a turn for the worse when she hit a pothole near a bus stop curb while driving her route in August 2017, triggering a jolt of extreme pain in her uterus and pelvic region. “I thought my water broke,” Pringle said. “When I got to the emergency room, they told me my son was in position to come [out]. But I was only seven months pregnant so they gave me a steroid shot to make sure if he did come early that his lungs would be strong enough to survive outside the womb.” When Pringle was released from the hospital, still in severe pain, a supervisor drove her back to the bus depot to complete paperwork related to the incident. Weeks before, she had told the same supervisor she’d been avoiding servicing the bus stop with the pothole, but he nevertheless directed her to keep driving there. The incident left Pringle with injuries to her back and hip, requiring her to be put on bed rest for the remainder of her pregnancy.
Because her injuries happened on the job, Pringle was given workers’ compensation during the time she was away. Her baby was born in November 2017. Pringle didn’t return to work until June 2018 as she recovered. When she came back, she was told that she wasn’t eligible for a promotion to bus dispatcher because she had used too much sick time when she was pregnant. This is a claim she continues to fight to this day, as she also faces suspension from work due to her absences while ill and pregnant. “Transit has this mindset, it’s them first and your children and your family second, and you shouldn’t be put in that predicament,” she said. “We’re scrutinized anytime we call out sick. The rule is that everyone is given paternity leave for two weeks, anything after that, you have to use your own time, vacation, whatever you have. Anyone who has a child, the doctor is gonna say you can’t go back to work for a minimum of six weeks to heal.”
Pringle was moved to come forward and join the lawsuit after she heard the story of another MTA worker, Jillian Williams, a 30-year-old subway conductor and also a plaintiff in the lawsuit.
According to the legal complaint, when Williams was five months pregnant, she began feeling severe discomfort. Her doctor advised she should sit at work more often rather than stand for hours on end, and strongly recommended she not carry heavy objects. Williams returned with her doctor’s orders and asked her supervisors for accommodations for the remainder of her pregnancy. But she couldn’t find much guidance or options and her job duties remained unchanged. Throughout the month of June, Williams was assigned harsh tasks and was working up to 10-hour shifts. One day, she was assigned to work in the train yard, manually switching heavy signals and tracks. Under tremendous physical effort, Williams went into active preterm labor alone on a deck at the East New York train yard. Her baby didn’t survive.
“That hit a nerve for me because that could have been me,” Pringle said. “How many more people have to go through that traumatic experience for transit to see … something needs to be done?”
This is another fight I’m gonna fight’
Young, the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit, has been pushing for years to get the MTA to address discrimination. She has worked at New York City Transit since 2001 and wasn’t a stranger to facing discrimination and intimidation at work. One of Young’s earlier jobs in transit was working in hydraulics, but she was forced to leave that position for speaking out against the way she was treated by the men she worked with.
Young became pregnant in late 2018. As her pregnancy progressed, she began feeling extremely ill with severe morning sickness, chronic dizziness, and would at times pass out, she said. After working as a train conductor since 2006, in January 2019 she was reassigned from that role to work as a platform controller, which meant she needed to stand on the subway platform for her entire shift to guard the surroundings, with only rare breaks to use the bathroom or drink water. Her extreme fatigue and light-headedness made the job nearly impossible and extremely dangerous. Her doctor wrote a recommendation saying Young should be placed on desk duty for the rest of her pregnancy, and an MTA physician who examined her in February 2019 agreed.
Young formally submitted her doctor’s request to the MTA and used her remaining accrued vacation time while her supervisors tried to find her a temporary desk job. But when she returned to work, Young’s supervisors said they couldn’t find her a substitute job role and that she would have to return to guard the subway platform, leaving her no choice but to take the remaining sick days she had left and then go on unpaid leave of absence.
“I knew what was gonna happen. I looked at it like, this is another fight I’m gonna fight. And sometimes you don’t necessarily want to have that fight, you just want to live your life normal. When are you gonna have a time when you’re not gonna have to fight?” Young said. She was also a representative for the Transport Workers Union Local 100 from 2016 to 2018. “[This is] something for the greater good. Transit puts so much fear in people’s hearts. If you’re pregnant and you’re looking at it like you’re worried about the safety of your baby and they’re not doing nothing, it’s crazy.”
Young said just days after her lawsuit was filed at the end of March 2019, angered co-workers began posting nasty comments about her in a Facebook group, including a transit employee who said, “Fuck her and her child,” according to the legal complaint. A supervisor also accused Young’s lawsuit of being “self-serving” and urged that she needed to be stopped. Young’s lawsuit also points to a culture of retaliation within the New York Transit Authority and MTA.
Young’s baby was born on June 6, 2019. She didn’t come back to work until February 2020, before a massive outbreak of coronavirus that has since taken the lives of hundreds of transit workers in New York City.
After Young initially filed suit, the MTA began to update its reasonable accommodation policy for pregnant people, but there is no plan to implement the policy, said Evangeline Byers, a train conductor and a member of the Transit Workers Union Local 100 executive board. A hotline was also established for pregnant transit workers to supposedly get help on how to apply for reasonable accommodations and receive information on other resources they may have on the job. But according to Byers, flyers or posters with the hotline’s number are not very accessible.
“A lot of women are forced onto public assistance and food stamps while they wait to give birth. Because the policy is so new, everybody is still being acclimated to how to deal with this,” Byers said. “Women are suffering in silence,” she said.
TWU Local 100 has filed several lawsuits against MTA regarding their discrimination of pregnant workers, echoing many of the concerns raised in Young’s case. She said the union wasn’t supportive of her when she first spoke out about these issues, which is the reason Young and the other plaintiffs have their own lawsuit separate from the union. On Nov. 9, TWU announced it had won additional accommodations for pregnant workers at MTA, granting temporary light work assignments for up to 60 days at a time with the opportunity of 30-day extensions.
As Young’s case works its way through the system, Byers is seeking to unseat current TWU Local 100 President Tony Utano next year.
“All of these issues are systemic to racism. We live in a society that is governed under white male patriarchy, the whole system is based around colonization, unjust unfair laws and practices … Racism is a part of it,” she said. “However, it’s not blatant racism. It’s covert, it’s not in your face, it’s hidden.”
Byers said the union, New York City Transit Authority, and MTA need to make space for more women in leadership roles. “A lot of these roles and the systems that are in place is because women are not there,” she said.
As for Young’s lawsuit, civil rights attorney Retu Singla says the next step is seeking certification as a class action. “[We have to] show this is a widespread problem that is impacting a lot of people,” Singla said. Nearly 30 women, mostly Black, have reached out to Singla with their experiences, largely thanks to the network that’s been created by workers like Young and Byers, she said. “They started getting together and talking about these issues, women across sections of transit.”
Outside of the lawsuit, Pringle and Young are working to foster a network and safe space for pregnant transit workers to find resources and support. “I try to educate the people that don’t know. There’s [pregnant] people that think they have a lot of options and they don’t,” Pringle said. “So I let people know and tell them if they have any questions on anything they may need to reach out. The only people that really know about anything are the ones who went through it.”
Young echoed Pringle’s focus on helping other women.
“I might not want to have another child. But this isn’t about me, it’s about other people,” Young said.