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Schumer must stand up for pregnant women before the lame duck ends

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Denizer Carter has a message for Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Senate leadership — but she’s worried that it will go unheard. 

When she was five months pregnant and working as a cashier in a grocery store, Denizer almost had a miscarriage. Her doctor recommended that she not lift anything over 15 pounds and be switched to lighter duty – but Denizer’s employer denied the request and fired her. Visibly pregnant, it was impossible for her to find a new job. She faced severe financial hardship, and almost lost her home. “Everyone said they were grateful to me for working the frontlines during the pandemic, but once I was pregnant no one would hire me,” she says. 

Denizer is traveling across the country this week to join pregnant women and moms on Capitol Hill to demand that the Senate pass the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, which would help millions of working people like her. She’s asking Schumer to stand up for women workers who form the backbone of our economy and ensure this bill gets across the finish line this year. One in five women have experienced pregnancy discrimination, and while media stories often focus on what gender discrimination looks like in the boardroom or c-suite, it has a far wider impact upon women in low-wage jobs, the essential workers who risked their lives to keep society functioning during the pandemic.

The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act is critical legislation which would close a gap in federal civil rights law and stop pregnant and postpartum workers from being forced out of their jobs. It requires employers to provide temporary, reasonable accommodations for pregnant and postpartum workers: like providing a chair for a supermarket cashier, or allowing a pregnant worker to carry around a bottle of water, or providing space to pump at work. Lawmakers should not forget that while accommodations are often simple it does not mean they are inconsequential and this bill would be an enormous step forward for women’s equality and maternal health; in fact, accommodations can spell the difference between a healthy pregnancy and dire health consequences. 

It is rare to find an issue that brings together Republicans and Democrats, employers, and working people. The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act is bipartisan, and has the support of the Chamber of Commerce, big business, labor, the faith community and advocates for gender and women’s rights, maternal health, and racial justice. The bill has passed the House and has enough votes from both parties to easily pass the Senate. All sides agree that pregnant workers deserve respect and support in their workplaces. 

Despite this widespread support, the Senate has yet to vote on the bill. Any further delay in this case is very likely death for this legislation.  Failure to pass the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act in the next few weeks would leave millions of pregnant and postpartum workers behind for years, perhaps even decades, to come. In a year when Congress failed to pass paid leave, childcare, universal pre-K, and other policies that help parents and families, will our leaders let this last chance for a win for working women expire as well? 

Failure to act would be confounding on the heels of the midterm elections and the especially high turnout from women voters, who made loud and clear they want to see their lawmakers prioritize women and families.  Women voters delivered — and what will happen if Senate leadership fails to deliver for women? 

A decision to not secure basic protections for pregnant and postpartum workers would be especially painful to working parents who are depleted and exhausted after years of having their needs ignored during the COVID-19 crisis. In the early days of the pandemic, a primal scream emerged across the country from mothers who overwhelmingly bore the impossible burden of working full time while caring for children at home during school closures. Their rage poured out during the fight to pass Build Back Better legislation, with hundreds of thousands taking action to call for paid family leave, only to see those hopes dashed when the final legislation eliminated all of the provisions meant to support women and families in the workplace. Roads and bridges were funded, because our leaders recognized that we need infrastructure to help people get to work and grow our economy. But paid leave and childcare, the infrastructure that disproportionately helps women get to work and stay in the workforce, were put on the chopping block. 

Women form the backbone of our economy, and make up the vast majority of the “essential” workforce in health care and community-based services during COVID – but they were ultimately given the message that Congress felt their needs were irrelevant. Now is the time to heed their call and take a critically important first step by passing the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, even as advocates are certainly not giving up on other necessary policies. The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act is one of the only things that can be done for women and families right now.

Helping women to stay in the workforce is not just a women’s issue — it’s critical for business, and for our whole economy — especially during a historic worker shortage. That’s just one of the reasons that over 350 businesses took a stand in favor of national paid leave last year, and why so many companies are now supporting the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act. That’s also why the CEOs of Rent the Runway, WeightWatchers, ThirdLove and the Skimm recently joined leaders in Hollywood like Amy Schumer, Julianne Moore and Padma Lakshmi to send an open letter to Schumer, saying, “Women are tired of being told that their health and economic security are not worth the time. Investing in women is an investment in our economy.” 

Leader Schumer can still call for a vote and pass this legislation this year, but time is running out. If the bill doesn’t make it into the end of year deals, he must bring it up for a vote on its own because trying means nothing unless he can get it over the finish line. Women don’t want a show of support for optics’ sake — they want results. Will he truly take action to show up for working women, at a time when working women have shown up to keep our nation running during a pandemic, and shown up in large numbers at the polls? Millions of women are watching. 

Dina Bakst is co-founder and co-president of A Better Balance (ABB), a national nonprofit legal advocacy organization that leverages the power of the law to advance justice for workers, so they can care for themselves and their loved ones without jeopardizing their economic security.

Tags Chuck Schumer pregnant worker

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