Pregnant Workers’ Rights At Wayside School (Yes, That One)

A portion of the cover of Wayside School Gets a Little StrangerAs those familiar with Louis Sachar’s humorous Wayside School series already know, the fictional elementary school is “a thirty-story building with one classroom on each floor.” (“The builder said he was sorry.”)

My children adore this series, and so do I, even if parts of it seem inappropriate by today’s standards. As I said in Sideways Stories: Still Fun (Mostly):

Listening to the audiobook with my children, I joined in the laughter, but I also cringed on occasion, such as when a little girl threatens to kiss another child against his will, when a child physically assaults a teacher, and, most problematically, when robbers bring guns into the school. They don’t end up hurting anyone, but even a brief reference to guns in school just isn’t funny in our post-Columbine educational environment.

Sideways Stories from Wayside School was published in the late 1970s, Wayside School is Falling Down was published in the late 1980s, and Wayside School Gets a Little Stranger was published in the mid-1990s.

My daughters just finished reading the third book, in which Mrs. Jewls is pregnant and has to stop teaching because, as she explains, “My doctor doesn’t want me walking up and down thirty flights of stairs every day.”

The fact that there are so many flights of stairs is one of the gags at the heart of this series. By the third book, the newly renovated school has an elevator, but it doesn’t work for long (and no one fixes it). In real life, a school like Wayside would violate the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, which was intended to remedy “the discriminatory effects of architectural, transportation, and communication barriers.” Obviously, a fictional school doesn’t have to adhere to real-life laws, but I can only imagine how alienating these books might feel to a young reader who would need an elevator to visit her friends on the 30th story.

Today, a real-life school like Wayside might also have to accommodate Mrs. Jewls during her pregnancy, depending on where in the country it’s located.** What about a new teaching position in a classroom on a lower floor? In some states and localities, there are Pregnant Workers Fairness Acts that require employers to provide reasonable accommodations to women for needs related to pregnancy, childbirth, or a related medical condition. Philadelphia has one, as does New York City and a growing number of states, including California, Delaware, New Jersey, and Hawaii. However, inexplicably, many states do not have these laws.***

I worried that Mrs. Jewls’ departure in Wayside School Gets a Little Stranger would give my daughters the wrong impression by teaching them that women *should* stop working while pregnant. That was a real-life rule in school districts across the country until the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated it in Cleveland Board of Education, et al v. LaFleur in 1974.

Thankfully, though, my 7-year-old daughters already know better. As one of them declared: “Mrs. Jewls shouldn’t have to stop working, unless she wants to.”


*The image is a portion of the cover of Wayside School Gets a Little Stranger.

**Let’s hope the federal Pregnant Workers Fairness Act passes so that women everywhere in the United States have the right to reasonable workplace accommodations related to pregnancy, childbirth, or a related medical condition. Many women never need an accommodation while pregnant, but those who do shouldn’t lose their jobs because of it. Most of the accommodations women need during pregnancy are relatively easy for an employer to provide, like a chair, help with lifting, or regular access to water.

***Right now, we are also waiting for the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Young v. UPS, a Pregnancy Discrimination Act/Title VII case that will decide whether employers must accommodate pregnant employees when they already accommodate non-pregnant employees with similar limitations arising from on-the-job injuries. We’ll see what happens. [UPDATE: In March 2015, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Young in a complicated opinion. It is a victory for pregnant workers that doesn’t obviate the need for the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act or similar state and local laws].


  1. I read these books with David a while back. I remembered them as lots of fun, but cringed when one of the children brought a hobo in for show and tell…

    Doesn’t it seem crazy that pregnant women face problems like this? As someone who had two healthy pregnancies, I went to school and/or worked pretty much up to the day I went to the hospital to give birth. I feel like the US just needs better policies for family and personal issues in general – yes for women who are having rough pregnancies, but also for workers who must care for elderly or sick family members.

    1. It’s fun to re-read these stories with our kids, isn’t it? There are definitely some cringe-worthy moments, but it’s amazing that so much of the humor in the Sachar books has withstood the test of time.

      You make a good point about needing better policies for other family-related and personal reasons. I’ve heard from employees (usually men, but some women too) who say that it bothers them when pregnant women receive “special treatment” in the workplace. Accommodations can increase the burdens on other employees, but in the end, we’re all better off when our workplaces are flexible. An employee might not need pregnancy-related leave or accommodations, but there may come a time when he’ll need to lean on his co-workers for some other reason. We should be helping each other.

  2. I would like to see the law passes. I worked right up until the end of my pregnancy without too much trouble. (I still remember having to get under my desk for an earthquake drill and needing help getting back up after because it was so difficult-not that that has anything to do with the topic at hand.) Where I ran into some difficulty was when I came back and needed a place to pump. The law protected my rights to do so, but the accommodations could have been much better.

    1. If I remember correctly, you’re in one of the better states for working parents (California). The rest of the country is just starting to catch up, but we have a long way to go!

  3. The US track record on respect for pregnant workers (and family leave!) is dismal. I was lucky in that when I needed an accommodation during my last pregnancy my employer was wonderful and willing to do whatever I needed. (They even offered to put a bed in my office so I could lay down! We settled on working from home indefinitely, haha.) But most women don’t have that experience. And when my husband asked for FMLA a while Peanut was in the NICUS it was a big drama with his employer. I’m not optimistic on any federal help coming, sadly. This country needs to do better by moms and dads.

    1. Hi Jaclyn! I’m glad to hear that your employer treated you fairly during your last pregnancy. I’m sorry it wasn’t the same experience for your husband, though I’m not surprised. Far too many people in our workplace culture still hold onto the belief that men aren’t meant to be equal parents. It’s sad.

    1. Oh yes, I am well aware of the odds in Congress and at the Supreme Court. Still, there are certainly many politicians from both sides of the aisle who care about pregnant workers. Some Republicans have sponsored (and many have voted to support) local and state level bills related to pregnancy and pumping accommodations. There was even a bipartisan amicus brief in support of Young (the pregnant worker) in the Supreme Court case. So, there’s hope for the future. 🙂

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