Tuesday, June 27, 2023: The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act takes effect today, requiring employers to make “reasonable accommodations” for pregnant and postpartum workers.
“Especially for low-wage working women and women of color, especially Black and Latina women, there has been generations of undervaluing fair labor, even though that labor is the backbone of our economy,” said Elizabeth Gedmark, vice president of A Better Balance. “The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act is going to change that. We are going to see a shift because pregnancy discrimination will no longer be tolerated.”
Thursday, Dec. 22, 2022, at 1:05 p.m. PT: In a historic victory, the Senate added the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act to the end-of-year omnibus package.
“Today’s Senate vote is a historic victory that has been more than 10 years in the making,” said Fatima Goss Graves, president and CEO of the National Women’s Law Center. “When this end-of year package passes the House and is signed into law, it will no longer be the case that pregnant workers can be ousted from their jobs for simply requesting basic accommodations like permission to sit on a stool, carry a bottle of water, or take additional bathroom breaks.
“Before this legislation, too often, when a pregnant worker needed a minor change in workplace duties or policies because of pregnancy, she was forced to take unpaid leave or be pushed out of work entirely—at a moment when she and her family could least afford it.”
Discrimination in the workplace against people who are pregnant is not a new phenomenon. In fact, this has been an ever-present sickness of capitalism and the workplace, systems that were not designed to support pregnancy.
Because of the oppressive impact of workplace discrimination on the health and well-being of our communities, it has been the ongoing work of advocates and lawmakers to change our laws, policy and culture to better care for people who are pregnant. And while important advances have been made, including the passage of the 1978 Pregnancy Discrimination Act, significant gaps remain. We need more policy to protect pregnant people, and the passage of the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act would be an important and necessary first step.
The 1978 Pregnancy Discrimination Act was an important law that made discrimination on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth or related medical conditions illegal. Its passage was essential. It allowed more pregnant people to remain employed and continue to support their families while pregnant without the concern of being forced out of a job.
While this legislation was not a blanket fix on pregnancy discrimination, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act was critical for ensuring women and people with the capacity for pregnancy could remain and advance in the workplace—before, during and after childbirth.
Unfortunately, courts have interpreted the protections offered by the Pregnancy Discrimination Act narrowly, allowing employers to refuse to accommodate workers with medical needs arising out of pregnancy. This means many pregnant people continue to face significant pregnancy discrimination and are forced to choose between their health and their jobs.
This context brings us to today, where we have a clear cut solution with broad support from lawmakers across the political spectrum. And yet, even at the end of 2022, on the brink of a new Congress, the Senate has not yet acted to pass the solution known as the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (PWFA).
The PWFA would require employers to provide reasonable, temporary workplace accommodations to pregnant workers as long as the accommodation does not impose an undue burden on the employer. These reasonable, medically necessary workplace accommodations can include allowing for an additional bathroom break, having a glass of water at a work station, having food at your desk, access to additional masks or a separate space to work in to reduce exposure to COVID-19 or RSV, lifting restrictions, or a stool to sit on to decrease time spent standing.
These accommodations are such small adjustments to an employee’s work that you may be wondering: Is a law like the PWFA actually necessary? The answer is emphatically yes.
As a lawyer and as a provider of comprehensive reproductive healthcare (including pregnancy care), we know that while many people can expect a routine pregnancy and healthy birth, some must make adjustments in their work activities to sustain a healthy pregnancy. We write this as pregnant capable people, one of us a parent. Pregnancy is a medical condition that requires adaptation to the needs of a pregnant person, including when they’re at work.
These accommodations are such small adjustments to an employee’s work that you may be wondering: Is a law like the PWFA actually necessary?
The answer is emphatically yes—but don’t just take our word for it. There are countless examples—like the UPS worker who was denied “light duty,” then lost medical coverage when she was placed on unpaid leave. Or the Walmart employee fired for carrying a water bottle. Or the woman who suffered a miscarriage and lost her pregnancy because her employer would not provide her with the reasonable accommodations—mainly weight lifting restrictions—that she needed.
The health and economic consequences of this type of pregnancy discrimination are profound. Pregnant workers—especially Black, Indigenous, Latinx workers and those being paid low-wages—are routinely fired or pushed out onto unpaid leave when they need pregnancy accommodations, threatening livelihoods at a time when they need the security of a paycheck the most. And others may have no choice but to risk their health in order to provide for themselves and their loved ones—sometimes with devastating results for both the parent’s and infant’s health outcomes.
Our need for compassionate reproductive healthcare and our need for safe, just workplaces are intertwined. We can’t have a future where we achieve safe and healthy communities if we don’t address the ways that our pregnancy status and our status as workers must align. We must do this work even within the workplaces of those fighting for reproductive health, rights and justice: Clinic workers, abortion funders and abortion seekers are also deserving of workplaces that have accommodations for their health needs.
The need for the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act is urgent. Our nation is facing multiple crises including an ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and a growing maternal mortality epidemic. The national lack of abortion access is also an emergency, where many are being denied abortion care and are forced to carry pregnancies to term.
The Senate has an important and quickly narrowing opportunity to pass the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act before the end of this Congress. We all deserve to be able to care for ourselves and our families without fear of discrimination and retaliation.
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