No one should be forced to choose between financial security and a healthy pregnancy.
In a huge win for reproductive justice advocates, The House of Representatives passed the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act late last week. The new legislation ensures pregnant people are not denied reasonable accommodations in the workplace.
In the recent past, pregnant workers have been fired for needing accommodations as simple as the ability to carry a water bottle to prevent bladder infections. Other workers were reported to have had their employment terminated for needing to limit their shift to eight hours, or for needing reasonable accommodations for some physical requirements of their job. (Egregiously, in June, a New York City MTA employee, Jillian Williams, was pregnant but miscarried while at work due to a lack of accommodations provided by her employer.)
“What had been happening, and still unfortunately happens too often, is that when an employee requests an accommodation, they’re summarily put out on unpaid leave, or told to come back after they have the baby. This is impossible for pregnant workers who need a paycheck,” Dina Bakst, co-founder of A Better Balance, a national legal advocacy organization, told Gothamist.
While pregnant workers were previously protected by the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 and the 2015 Supreme Court Decision in Young v. United Parcel Service, this bill goes further in working to safeguard the rights of pregnant people—particularly those marginalized on the basis of race and class.
The bill borrows procedurally from the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in calling for an interactive process between employer and employee to determine what appropriate accommodations look like. In this process pregnant people are legally protected from retaliation, coercion, intimidation, threats or interference if they do request or use an accommodation.
Like the ADA, however, the rule only applies to employers with over fifteen employees. There is also an exemption rule if the accommodation imposes an “undue hardship” on the employer. The protections apply to both applicants and employees.
Increased legal protections for pregnant workers will hopefully work to reduce the climbing numbers of maternal and infant mortality in the U.S., as well as the racial disparities found in these rates. The CDC has found the rates of pregnancy related deaths are two to three times higher for women of color compared to white women.
Mortality rates are actually increasing overall in the U.S., even as technology advances. Black pregnant people and infants face the most risk in labor and delivery, regardless of their level of education or income. In this crisis of life and death, those invested in reproductive justice must be working towards all possible individual and systemic solutions for this horrific disparity.
The National Partnership for Women and Families is hopeful that the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act will provide some measure of economic security. They found pregnant workers face structural disadvantages when re-entering the job market after being fired and losing vital income. In an economic recession due to COVID-19—and a job market that is particularly challenging for unemployed workers, mothers and pregnant people—this legislation is needed now more than ever.
Dr. Jamila Perritt of Physicians for Reproductive Health added, “The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act helps ensure that those who are most likely to work in some of the most challenging settings, like immigrants and those with low incomes, have the humane protections they deserve.”
Support for this type of legislation is widespread: A Center for American Progress poll found 95 percent of voters believe employers should make reasonable accommodations for pregnant people. And while the bill passed the House with bipartisan support, the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act will still have to pass in the Republican-held Senate—which has been hostile to worker protections throughout Trump’s presidency.
Take Action: Protect the Rights of Pregnant Workers
The case is clear: Congress must pass the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act to protect the rights and livelihoods of pregnant workers and ensure a truly equal workplace.
Now is the time to collectively inform ourselves and each other about our reproductive rights.
Add your name now to the ACLU petition to express your support for the rights of pregnant workers. And contact your senator to put the pressure on for a floor vote.