Senate bill would apply disability rules to pregnant women in the workforce

A new Senate bill would give pregnant women workplace accommodations similar to those that exist for the disabled.

The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act from Sens. Bob Casey Jr. (D-Pa.) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) would make it illegal for workplaces not to "reasonably accommodate" pregnant employees.

A boss might have to reassign heavy-lifting tasks, for example, or provide a pregnant employee with a stool if she experiences pain while standing for long periods during work.

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The bill would also bar employers from firing or placing on unpaid leave pregnant women who need small job modifications to remain healthy.

"Pregnant workers face discrimination in the workplace every day, which is an inexcusable detriment to women and working families in Pennsylvania and across the country," Casey said in a statement.

"This legislation will finally extend fairness to pregnant women so that they can continue to contribute to a productive economy while progressing through pregnancy in good health."

The National Women's Law Center (NWLC), a group that supports the bill, says it would toughen a 1978 law that banned discrimination toward pregnant women.

The Pregnancy Discrimination Act is not enough on its own, the NWLC argues, because some pregnant women have not been sufficiently protected under that law.

In one case cited by the group, Wal-Mart fired a pregnant employee for insubordination after she refused to stop carrying a water bottle at work as recommended by her doctor.

In another case, a pregnant Old Navy employee was dismissed after she asked to be exempt from climbing ladders and lifting heavy objects for the final month and a half before her maternity leave.

Both women argued that the cases amounted to discrimination related to their pregnancies — not performance-related issues, as alleged by their employers.

The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act "relies on a reasonable accommodation framework already familiar to employers accustomed to the [Americans with Disabilities Act]'s requirements," the NWLC wrote in a fact sheet. "It would ensure that pregnant women are treated as well in the workplace as workers with disabilities."

The bill's House companion was introduced by Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) in May.