Fight for Workplace Equity for Women: Mothers Break Their Silence

The pregnancy penalty must end in Massachusetts.

Danielle was not allowed to sit at all during her shift as an assistant manager at a gas station in Westfield. Aliza couldn't get a half-hour lunch break in her work as a nurse practitioner in Cambridge. Sandy was forced to work with no restroom break for eight hours at a mall store in Holyoke. Alejandra faced the choice of losing her physically demanding job at a Central Massachusetts laundry or increasing her hours from 40 to 50 when she was three months pregnant. Liz was ordered to bring food to the North Shore hospital room of a patient contagious with shingles, despite the sign on the door explicitly warning pregnant women not to enter.

Women from all over the state have stories like these about working while pregnant. Some lost their jobs. Some were forced to make the untenable choice between an income and a healthy pregnancy. Some lost their paychecks when they needed them the most. Some wound up on public assistance. Some stayed on the job and suffered the consequences. One lost her baby. All for the lack of accommodations routinely granted to other classes of workers.

Many women fear talking about workplace pregnancy discrimination will damage their employment prospects; but, today at the Massachusetts State House, women will tell their intimate stories, and speak out in favor of the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act. The proposed legislation would ensure that employers offer reasonable workplace accommodations to pregnant employees.

Adding a significant endorsement, the largest private employer in Western Massachusetts will submit testimony strongly supporting the Act. Baystate Health calls the PWFA "without question, a common-sense law that will support the health and well-being of our families today and for generations to come." With more than 12,000 employees, Baystate is a workforce leader and a premiere provider of women's health services.

A Fair Chance and Fair Pay

Protection from pregnancy discrimination and equal pay in the workplace are two foundations of achieving economic justice for women. The coalition supporting the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act will join the Equal Pay Coalition to advocate for leveling the playing field for women when the Labor and Workforce Development Committee hears these bills related to workplace discrimination and safety.

"Women have been fighting for years to achieve equal treatment in the workplace and are still fighting for that goal," says PWFA coalition leader Liz Friedman, Program Director of MotherWoman. "Women must have not only a fair wage, but also a fair chance."

"The goal of the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act is to make it possible for pregnant women to work as long as they choose. The PWFA would ensure that women, especially the low-income and hourly-wage workers most likely to suffer pregnancy discrimination, are not facing economic insecurity simply because they are pregnant," says Denise Hurst, chairperson of MotherWoman's Advocacy Committee.

In addition to the mothers sharing their personal stories, those offering testimony to the legislative committee on Tuesday include: MotherWoman's Friedman, Rebecca Pontikes for the Massachusetts Employment Lawyers Assoc.; Kimberly Dougherty, president of the Massachusetts Women's Bar Association; Chelsea Sedani, director of advocacy for the Crittendon Women's Union in Boston; Dean Cycon, owner of Dean's Beans coffee company in Athol; Michael Falcone for the Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts; Dr. James Wang, spokesperson for the American Congress of Gynecologists and Obstetricians/Massachusetts and medical director of Baystate Health's Wesson Women's Clinic; and Tolle Graham representing the Massachusetts Coalition of Occupational Health and Safety.

Pregnancy Discrimination in the Spotlight

Pregnancy discrimination in the workplace has received attention recently in the New York Times and the Huffington Post, sparked by an article in the "American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology" detailing how physicians' requests that employers accommodate pregnant women can backfire. "We can do harm if we are not careful when writing these notes for patients," Dr. Rebecca Jackson, the lead author and the chief of obstetrics and gynecology at San Francisco General Hospital, told the Times.

"As obstetricians, we want the best health for our pregnant mothers," says Dr. Jacqueline Kates, who practices obstetrics in Springfield and Westfield. "Mothers ask us to write letters to employers that outline how their places of employment can best support their health. When we do, we are in the precarious position of writing the notorious 'fire me' letter that an employer can interpret to mean that the pregnant woman can no longer meet the requirements of her job."

The bottom line is that the complex, patchwork body of existing federal and state laws that may apply to accommodating pregnancy in the workplace has left women with gaps in the safety net. "We, as physicians, need the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (PWFA) to clarify the protections of pregnant workers for employers so that we can do what we do best - advise patients how to best care for themselves while off or on the job," says Kates.


The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (H 1769) would prohibit an employer to deny reasonable accommodations of a job applicant or employee related to pregnancy, childbirth, or related conditions if the employee or applicant so requests, unless the employer can demonstrate that the accommodation would impose an undue hardship. Reasonable accommodations include, but are not be limited to:

  • more frequent or longer breaks
  • seating
  • acquisition or modification of equipment
  • assistance with manual labor
  • light duty
  • modified work schedules
  • job restructuring
  • temporary transfer to a less strenuous or hazardous position
  • break time and private non-bathroom space for expressing breast milk

The Act would also require that employers inform all employees and applicants of the availability of accommodations. It would also prohibit discrimination in hiring or promotion based on pregnancy as well as retaliation against employees seeking reasonable accommodations for pregnancy. The bill is sponsored by Rep. Ellen Story (D-Amherst), Sen. Joan Lovely (D-Salem) and Rep. Dave Rogers (D-Cambridge). There are 60 co-sponsors.

About MotherWoman
MotherWoman supports and empowers mothers to create personal and social change by building community safety nets, impacting family policy and promoting the leadership and resilience of mothers. A statewide organization, MotherWoman is based in Hadley, Mass.