Thirty five years ago this week the federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act was born. The PDA was passed in 1978 as an amendment to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. It outlawed workplace discrimination on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth or related medical conditions and applies to employers with 15 or more employees, including both state and local governments.
Essentially, the PDA was meant to promote equal opportunity and prevent discrimination in the workplace by mandating that pregnant women be treated the same as other employees in regards to hiring, firing, training, promotions, disability leave and all other aspects of employment. However, pregnancy discrimination claims have risen 35 percent over the last decade, and the PDA’s power to protect women has proven woefully limited.
The specific wording of the PDA is such that being fired for pregnancy is a clear violation, but it becomes vague about other protections. For example, the act says that employers must provide accommodations for pregnant women the same way that they would for those with temporary disabilities. But if they don’t accommodate employees with temporary disabilities, they may not be required to offer reasonable accommodations for pregnant employees. Also, many workplaces only accommodate injuries that happen on the job, and pregnancy hardly ever qualifies.
Although the PDA meant well, it has sadly fallen short of providing pregnant women the protections they need. Because of this, many states have passed their own pregnant worker protection laws, including California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Louisiana, Alaska, Texas, Maryland and Illinois. Even city governments are stepping up, the New York City Council having recently passed a bill to provide pregnant workers with specific accommodations such as water breaks and exemptions from heavy lifting. Philadelphia City Council members have introduced a bill mirroring it. Unfortunately federal attempts have been less successful: The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act was introduced in Congress last May but has been stalled in a House subcommittee since July.
University of Dayton law professor Jeannette Cox suggests, in a recent article published in the Boston College Law Review, wrote that the answer to the limited protections provided by the PDA is to include pregnancy as part of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Cox argues that redefining pregnancy as a disability under the law would ensure women access to special accommodations, but the idea of defining pregnancy as a “defective state” is unappealing to many women who see it as reinforcing stereotypes and a step backwards from equality.
“It’s a debate internal to feminism,” says Cox. “Do we want our laws to treat us … exactly the same? Or to give us equal employment opportunities, which account for our physiological difference and a history of exclusion?”