#ProtectPregnantWorkers: Feminists React to House Passage of Pregnant Workers Fairness Act

In 2014, advocates and members of Congress rallied outside the Supreme Court as the Justices decided a pregnancy discrimination case. (Jeffrey Martin / National Women’s Law Center)

On Friday, the House passed the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, a crucial piece of legislation designed to guarantee workplace protections for pregnant people. While the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 (PDA) provides some protections, pregnancy discrimination is still far too commonplace.

Even after the 2015 Supreme Court Decision in Young v. United Parcel Service, which allowed pregnant workers to sue under the PDA for being discriminated against for asking for reasonable accommodations, pregnant workers are often denied accommodations. Young’s standard required to prove discrimination is unreasonably high, and doesn’t affirmatively support pregnant workers’ rights to reasonable accommodations.

The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (PWFA) would change that. Under the act, all public sector employers and private sector employers with more than 15 employees must make reasonable accommodations for pregnant workers, so that they can work safely throughout their pregnancy.

It draws inspiration from the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), guaranteeing that pregnant workers cannot be demoted, forced to take leave or otherwise retaliated against for requesting accommodations. It also balances employer’s interests by explaining that employers are not required to grant accommodations that impose an “undue hardship” on the business.

The passage of the PWFA in the House is an important step forward towards ensuring that all pregnant workers receive equal access and treatment in the workplace. And the bipartisan vote—315 to 101, with 99 Republicans joining the 216 Democrats—bodes well for the future of the bill. Now, the Senate must act quickly to pass this important legislation and protect pregnant workers.

“Long Overdue”: Legislators React

In the wake of the House vote, many legislators emphasized the importance of the bill and called on the Senate to pass the legislation and send it to President Biden’s desk. 

Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.), sponsor of the bill, wrote:

“Over the nearly nine years since I first introduced the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, I have met with countless pregnant workers and listened to their heartrending stories of having to make the impossible decision between staying at work or protecting the health of their pregnancy. That’s a choice no one should ever be forced to make and it’s why I have fought tirelessly to advance the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act. Passing the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act isn’t just common sense—it’s a question of fairness and decency. Guaranteeing pregnant workers the most reasonable of accommodations will erode pernicious discrimination against pregnant women, strengthen our economy, and keep women and children healthy and safe. I’m delighted that the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act passed the House with bipartisan support today and I’ll keep working until it is signed into law.”

Co-sponsor Rep. Lucy McBath (D-Ga.) added, “Like so many women in America, my story includes a struggle to get pregnant. Far too many expecting mothers are not provided necessary accommodations in the workplace to keep themselves healthy during pregnancy, and I am particularly proud that this bill helps protect pregnant women and their families from discrimination. No woman should ever have to choose between maintaining a healthy pregnancy and their paycheck.”

And Bobby Scott (D-Va.), chairman of the Committee on Education and Labor, explained:

“Current federal law does not clearly guarantee pregnant workers’ right to reasonable accommodations in the workplace—such as water, seating, bathroom breaks, and lifting restrictions. These basic protections are critical to protecting pregnant workers from the tragic consequences of unsafe working conditions, and they are particularly important today, as early evidence suggests that pregnancy leads to an elevated risk of severe illness from COVID-19. The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act is a bipartisan proposal that would finally establish clear, nationwide protections that guarantee pregnant workers the basic right to reasonable accommodations. This legislation has broad support across the political spectrum and across our communities—and is long overdue.”

Other co-sponsors weighed in as well, like Rep. Linda Teresa Sánchez (D-Calif.) and Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester (D-Del.), who focused on the dangerous choice pregnant workers have had to face when trying to work without reasonable accommodations.

Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), the first sitting New York City council member to give birth while in office, wrote, “I was proud today to vote for the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act and am urging the Senate to pass it swiftly. Pregnancy discrimination holds working parents back and threatens their financial stability, with women of color being disproportionately harmed by the current lack of workplace protections. It’s long past time we ensure that every worker is entitled to reasonable accommodations to support a healthy pregnancy.”

And Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) pointed out the progress Democratic lawmakers have made in passing legislation designed to support Americans.


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“No One Should Have to Choose Between a Healthy Pregnancy and Their Job”: Feminists React

Feminists and reproductive justice advocates are also praising the passage of this bill, pointing out that it will prevent gendered and pregnancy-based discrimination, and ensure all pregnant workers have access to equal rights at work.

Dina Bakst, co-founder and co-president of A Better Balance, said in a statement:

“This represents a resounding victory for the pregnant workers who have been treated like second class citizens under the law for far too long, especially low-income workers and mothers of color. At A Better Balance, we have heard from thousands of expecting mothers over the years who have been denied accommodations and forced off the job, suffering devastating economic consequences as a result. For nearly a decade, we have been leading the charge to combat this horrific mistreatment, alongside so many brave women who have spoken out, to pass this urgently needed legislation. As we emerge from a global pandemic that has forced millions of women out of work, the Senate must listen to pregnant workers and act swiftly to pass the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act and send it to the President’s desk. It’s long overdue.”

Alexis McGill Johnson, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Federation of America and the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, wrote on Twitter, “So glad to see the House pass this critical legislation with broad bipartisan support—there’s no excuse for continuing to ignore the needs of pregnant workers and deepening gender, racial, and economic disparities. The Senate must pass this legislation without delay!”

In a press release from the coalition of organizations reponsible for advocating for the PRFA, Angela Aina, the executive director of Black Mamas Matter Alliance, emphasized the importance of the PWFA for Black parents:

“Black Mamas Matter Alliance is proud to support policies that affect positive change for pregnant workers and employers. Some states have taken action to ensure workplace accommodations for pregnant and breastfeeding workers. Black pregnant workers will beenfit from policies that set and implement national standards to ensure pregnancy fairness in the workplace. The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act has the capability to ensure Black parenting people can prioritize the health of themselves and their children, without risk of losing their employment.

And Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, executive director and CEO of MomsRising, reiterated the urgency of this legislating during the COVID-19 pandemic:

“Bipartisan passage of the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act in the U.S. House of Representatives is an important step in making our workplaces more fair and putting policies in place that will enable women and moms to succeed in the workforce, following a devastating year when so many women, and especially moms of color, were pushed out. We need to build a care infrastructure, which includes ending the days when people are forced to choose between their paycheck and a healthy pregnancy. This must be the year the U.S. Senate passes the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act as well, so President Biden can sign it into law.”

Emily Martin, vice president for education and workplace justice at the National Women’s Law Center, added:

“Today’s vote brings working people one step closer to no longer being forced to choose between a paycheck and a healthy pregnancy. The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act protects pregnant workers who simply want to do their jobs but are prevented when employers refuse to make even minor temporary changes to accommodate their medical needs. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that women are central to our economy—and as many pregnant workers on the frontlines keep our country going every day, we must provide them the basic accommodations they need to stay healthy. Now, it’s the Senate’s turn to swiftly vote for this commonsense bill.”

Using #ProtectPregnantWorkers, feminists are celebrating the bill as a step towards full equity for pregnant workers.

Now, feminist organizations like NARAL and the National Women’s Law Center are calling for the Senate to quickly take action and pass the bill.

The PWFA is an essential step on the path towards full equality for women, parents and all pregnant people. It prevents pregnant people from being discriminated or retaliated against for simply requiring temporary reasonable accommodations during pregnancy. And it demonstrates a necessary commitment to upholding the rights of pregnant people and children. The House has proven that they respect and value pregnant people and will work to ensure their safety. Now, the Senate must follow their lead and vote to send the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act to President Biden’s desk.

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About

Katie Fleischer is a recent graduate of Smith College and a Ms. editorial assistant working on the Front and Center series.