Prioritizing equality in 2016

Today, women make up nearly half of the American workforce, with salaries that have become critical to their families’ economic security. While many women can and do work throughout their pregnancy without any job modifications, those who cannot do so should not be pushed out of their employment or forced onto medical leave — which is too often unpaid — only to find themselves without any income or benefits weeks before giving birth. No woman should have to choose between a healthy pregnancy and a job, yet too many women continue to face that choice.

Today, millions of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) Americans can legally be fired from their jobs, denied a table in a restaurant or evicted from their homes — not for breaking any law, but for being who they are. This insidious discrimination pervades every aspect of people’s lives, including one of the most private and vulnerable settings: the doctor’s office. These terrible actions are not idle speculation but rather real-world consequences of the failure of our laws to protect individuals from discrimination.


So that no other women have to face these impossible choices and to ensure that LGBT individuals are protected from discrimination, President Obama would be wise to include the passage of the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (PWFA) and the Equality Act, sponsored by Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), as policy goals in his 2016 State of the Union address.

Discrimination against pregnant workers has been happening since women entered the workforce. More than 35 years ago, Congress passed the Pregnancy Discrimination Act in an effort to ensure pregnant women receive the same treatment as their non-pregnant coworkers. Last year, in Peggy Young v. UPS, the Supreme Court took the law one step further and found that employers who accommodate most non-pregnant workers with injuries or disabilities must also accommodate most pregnant workers in the same way. While this decision was a victory for Peggy Young, it still leaves millions of pregnant workers unsure of their rights and places a burden on pregnant women to prove discrimination in order to receive an accommodation.

Passage of the PWFA is a concrete policy goal the president can champion that will ensure women are treated fairly in the workforce and help millions of hard-working Americans stay afloat as their families grow. No more comparing workers or deciding what counts as discrimination. No more getting caught up in lawsuits about who was accommodated and who was not. The PWFA creates an affirmative duty to accommodate pregnant women unless the accommodation imposes an undue hardship on the employer, using the same language that has successfully guided the Americans With Disabilities Act for 25 years. Employers can know just what to expect, and, most importantly, pregnant women can know they will be protected. Fifteen states and the District of Columbia have already passed versions of the bill into law, and in both houses of Congress the bill has broad, bipartisan support from nearly 150 co-sponsors and is endorsed by countless health, women, faith and labor groups.

At the same time, the Equality Act is a surprisingly straightforward piece of legislation, which extends current anti-discrimination protections already on the books to the millions of LGBT Americans facing unfair hardships in their daily lives. Last June, in Obergefell v. Hodges, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of marriage equality , saying that the Constitution protects “fundamental liberties” to “certain personal choices ... defining personal identity and beliefs.” Without the Equality Act, however, though the court may have secured the right to marriage equality, in much of the country there is nothing that protects someone from getting married on a Sunday and fired on the Monday. From fair access to housing and credit to public accommodations and employment, the Equality Act would update our civil rights laws to assure all Americans that their ability to see a doctor, rent an apartment or apply for a job doesn’t end at state lines.

Throughout his administration, this president has demonstrated a steadfast commitment to the protection and promotion of equality, presiding over a period in which we have made historic strides advancing the rights of all Americans, with the repeal of “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” women’s reproductive healthcare being covered under the Affordable Care Act, and marriage equality in all 50 states. This is a legacy Obama can be proud of, but the work is not done, and more is needed to help address the struggles of working families and eliminate discrimination across the country. If we are to continue delivering real solutions and ensure equality and protection for every American, pushing Congress to take up the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act legislation and the Equality Act is an easy first step.

Nadler represents New York’s 10th Congressional District and has served in the House since 1992. He sits on the Judiciary and the Transportation committees.