The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill

Congress should help pregnant workers stay healthy and on the job

I learned about one patient’s story from another physician that has stuck with me: “Jenny” was 16 weeks pregnant when she arrived in the emergency room very dehydrated. She told the treating physician that although her obstetrician had told her to drink regularly, her boss would not allow her to drink water while working the cash register. So after standing for hours at the register, she fainted, was brought to the hospital by ambulance, treated with intravenous fluids and got better. Not every pregnant worker is so fortunate.

Throughout my career, I have worked to advance women’s health as a public health doctor trained in obstetrics and gynecology and unfortunately, Jenny’s story is not uncommon, as the law does not provide clear enough protections for pregnant women to have access to what they need to stay healthy and on the job.  That’s why it is critical for millions of families that Congress pass the federal Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (PWFA), which will be reintroduced today by lead sponsors Sens. Bob Casey (D-Pa.), Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), Dean Heller (R-Nev.); and Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.). 

Last month, statewide legislation (A4272) in my home state of New York was unanimously approved, making New York the ninth state in the country to do so since 2013. The law, like its federal counterpart, will proactively require employers to provide reasonable accommodations to pregnant employees with medical need for them, unless it would be an undue hardship. I applaud these state and federal legislators for recognizing that pregnant women need immediate relief and clear law on their side so that they can stay healthy during a critical period in their lives.

Three-quarters of women entering the workforce today will be pregnant and employed at some point during their careers. Some of these women – especially those in physically strenuous jobs – will face a conflict between the demands of their work and the demands of pregnancy. Physically demanding work – long hours, prolonged standing, heavy lifting – has been shown to be associated with a statistically increased risk of preterm delivery and low birth weight.

Many of the women who most need these common sense accommodations earn low wages and are those who can least afford to lose a paycheck.  Yet in many cases, slight modifications could be made by employers to allow women to stay on the job and maintain healthy pregnancies.

When pregnant women are denied reasonable accommodations, many are forced to continue in their jobs in unhealthy conditions, risking their own health and the health of their future babies. Other pregnant women are denied reasonable accommodations and forced out of their jobs, losing income at a time when it is most needed.  

In contrast, women who are able to keep working during pregnancy may be able to use their leave following childbirth, which in turn can help facilitate breastfeeding, bonding with and caring for a new baby, and recovering from childbirth – in sum, healthier outcomes for the woman and her family.

In just over a year, New York City’s Pregnant Workers Fairness Act has proven highly effective in keeping pregnant women healthy and earning wages when they need it most. And the impact extends beyond the pregnant worker and her family: employers retain experienced employees and unnecessary health care costs are avoided. The citywide legislation set the stage for similar success across the nation and now should be replicated at the federal level.

So for mothers across the country, Congress should pass this common sense legislation – the PWFA – and recognize the growing national movement to provide pregnant workers and their families the fairness they deserve.

In 2015, no pregnant woman should have to make the impossible choice between her job and a healthy pregnancy.



Chavkin is a professor of population and family health at the Mailman School of Public Health, Columbia University.

Tags Bob Casey Dean Heller Jeanne Shaheen Kelly Ayotte

Most Popular

Load more


See all Video