Passing the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act is a bipartisan no-brainer
When Congress passed the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 it was intended to protect pregnant workers from being treated unfairly at work. However, in the years since its passage, it has been difficult to enforce because of the ambiguous language of the law. In fact, according to A Better Balance, an organization that advocates for pregnant workers, caregivers and families, over two-thirds of pregnant workers lose their discrimination cases in court.
Yet, the workplace discrimination that pregnant workers often encounter is as blatant as it is rampant. And too frequently it comes with tragic outcomes.
Take the case of Tasha Murrell, who worked in an XPO Logistics warehouse in Memphis, Tenn. According to a testimonial she shared on A Better Balance’s website, she had a note from her doctor saying she should restrict how much she lifted during her pregnancy. Despite that fact and the stomach pain she was experiencing, her employer did not allow any modifications to her duties. One day while working, she told a supervisor that she was in pain and asked if she could head home early. She was told no. The next day, she suffered a miscarriage.
Other workers who have asked to transition to lighter duties, to work inside instead of outside in the heat, or perhaps for more breaks to sit, drink water or pump breast milk, have likewise been met with hostility. They have been forced to take unpaid leave, slowly pushed out of their jobs or simply fired just because they asked for accommodations that would support a healthy pregnancy. As a result, some of them have lost their careers, their incomes and even their homes.
But a new bill, which passed the House in 2021 with overwhelming bipartisan support, could end these practices once and for all. The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act would require employers to give pregnant workers “reasonable accommodations,” allowing them to continue doing their jobs without jeopardizing their economic security or their health. These accommodations might include additional bathroom or water breaks, the option to sit while working, relief from heavy lifting or dangerous tasks, schedule changes, space to pump breast milk and more.
Most would be modest adjustments to a worker’s responsibilities and none would be required if they imposed “undue hardship” on the employer. But even these small modifications can be the difference between a healthy pregnancy and financial security for workers, on the one hand, and very real risks for mothers, their babies and their entire families on the other.
The act is now on Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s (D-N.Y.) desk. This bill needs to be brought to the floor now. No one should be holding up a bill that is so important to having a successful pregnancy and being able to continue to work. Isn’t it time to do the right thing for pregnant workers?
That pregnant workers face so many hurdles on the job is no real surprise, not for this country. The United States has a pretty sad track record when it comes to supporting women and families. In fact, it is just one of only six nations in the world, and the only wealthy one, without a national paid parental leave policy. This means many workers must not only continue to work almost up until the day they give birth, but must return to work just a few short weeks after delivery. This is despite the fact that it normally takes the human body months, if not years, to fully recover from the enormous physical tolls of pregnancy and childbirth.
But many women push through these difficulties because they need the income or the health insurance their employer provides. Many others simply love what they do and want to work. What they don’t want is to have to choose between a job and a healthy baby. And they shouldn’t have to.
The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act would close gaps in our current laws to offer the kinds of protections workers need. And while these would accrue real-time benefits to the pregnant workers themselves by allowing them to adequately care for their bodies and their babies while holding down a job, ultimately our whole society will be better off. Why? Because more women will be able to remain in the workforce, which is critical for economic growth and prosperity.
The COVID-19 pandemic certainly brought home how damaging the loss of millions of women workers — about 1 million of which had not returned to work as of April 27 — was to this country’s economy. We saw how critical so many of them were to keeping this country afloat, often as the essential workers who allowed our grocery stores, childcare centers, pharmacies, emergency rooms and more to remain open throughout the crisis. Since women make up about half the labor force and 85 percent of working women will be pregnant at least once, that should be enough people to make passing this legislation an urgent priority.
There is no excuse; there is vast support for this bill. And not just in the halls of Congress. From the ACLU to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, labor unions and organizations advocating and addressing the most pressing policy issues of motherhood and families such as Mom Congress, all support the act. So do about 90 percent of voters, including 93 percent of Democrats, 88 percent of independents and 87 percent of Republicans, according to Data for Progress, a progressive think tank and polling firm.
Majority Leader Schumer, bring the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act to the Senate floor. Any further delay could be disastrous, spelling the death of this bill and leading to significant repercussions that women and their families will feel for decades to come. Requiring simple accommodations on the job that will allow workers to have a healthy pregnancy without risking their financial security is not a lot to ask. In fact, it’s pretty basic. And all it takes is a vote.
Martha Nolan is a senior policy advisor at HealthyWomen. HealthyWomen works to educate women ages 35 to 64 to make informed health choices.