House Passes Key Protections For Pregnant Workers

The bill, in the works for years, brings actual good news for women in 2020.

The House on Thursday passed the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, which would provide key workplace protections for women, particularly those working in physically demanding jobs.

The rights of pregnant women proved hard to oppose. The vote was 329-73, with 226 Democrats and 103 Republicans voting for the bill. Only one Republican spoke against it during the floor debate. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) said the bill didn’t protect employers’ religious rights, though didn’t explain exactly how.

First introduced in 2012, the legislation would require employers to provide reasonable accommodations at work to pregnant women, or women who’ve just given birth, who have a medical need. The act is modeled on the 30-year-old Americans with Disabilities Act, which requires employers to work with disabled employees to find reasonable fixes at work so they can continue to do their jobs. Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-NY) sponsored the bill, along with Reps. John Katko (R-N.Y.), Lucy McBath (D-Ga.), Herrera Beutler (R-Wa.), and Bobby Scott (D-Va.).

“This is about maternal health, this is about racial justice, this is about economic justice,” said Dina Bakst, the co-founder and co-president of A Better Balance, a nonprofit legal organization that fought for the bill. “It couldn’t come at a more important time.”

The right of pregnant women to certain medical accommodations at work has become even more crucial during the pandemic, and is critical for women in the kinds of low-paying jobs deemed “essential” in the pandemic. Indeed, 65% of frontline workers are women and 41% are nonwhite, according to recent research from the Center for Economic Policy and Research.

Still, their needs were an issue long before COVID-19. The accommodations pregnant women require at work are fairly simple: a stool for a cashier to sit on while working the register, light-lifting duty for warehouse workers, a water bottle for a retail worker on the shop floor or a different-sized uniform for a pregnant police officer. Sometimes pregnant women just need a few more bathroom breaks or time to go to the doctor.

“No mother to be or mother in this country should have to choose between being a parent and keeping her job.”

- Rep. John Katko (R-N.Y.) one of the bill's cosponsor's

Incredibly, women get fired or sent on unpaid leave in those situations, years of lawsuits reveal. That means they’re left without income just when they really need a paycheck. The consequences can be devastating: Bakst mentioned a woman who wound up homeless when she was in her third trimester and others forced to apply for food stamps.

“No mother to be or mother in this country should have to choose between being a parent and keeping her job,” said Rep. John Katko (R-N.Y.) on Thursday morning during the House debate over the bill.

“When companies refuse to accommodate for pregnancy-related needs it doesn’t just hurt the person being discriminated against it hurts the entire family,” said Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) on the House floor Thursday.

Other times, women have little choice to keep working, putting their lives and their pregnancies at risk. A few years ago at a warehouse in Memphis, several women had miscarriages after they were denied lighter lifting duties.

The bill has a surprising array of support: Both the ACLU and the Chamber of Commerce are backing it. (Neither the White House or Ivanka Trump, who often says she supports women, has said anything yet about the legislation.) And similar laws in the states have passed with bipartisan support; there are currently 30 states with laws like this on the books. Advocates are optimistic about its chances in the Senate, though it’s unclear if it’ll come up for a vote there this year.

When it was first introduced we had concerns with the language. In past years, we would’ve said, ‘We don’t like it, move on,’” said Glenn Spencer, vice president of employment policy at the Chamber. Instead, the pro-business group met with advocates to modify the bill.

“It was a good example of sitting down with people you might not talk to and figuring out how to make it work for both sides,” said Spencer. “In D.C. that’s very unusual these days.”

Through a spokesperson, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden applauded the bill’s passage and urged the Senate to take it up. “While President Trump called pregnancy ‘an inconvenience’ for businesses, Vice President Biden believes that pregnant workers shouldn’t have to choose between their health and their work,” said Mariel Sáez, the women’s media director for the Biden campaign. “He strongly supports the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act and included it in his agenda to build America back better for women. The bill’s protections for pregnant workers are commonsense and vital — especially in the face of this pandemic.”

This isn’t some niche bill either. Three-quarters of women entering the workforce will become pregnant at least once while they’re working, according to a report from the Center for American Progress. Most will continue to work into their ninth month and nearly half will be back to work less than three months later.

Congress did pass a Pregnancy Discrimination Act in 1978 that prohibits firing a woman who is pregnant. At the time, women would typically lose their jobs as soon as they started showing or when they told their boss about pregnancy.

But the challenges in the workplace had changed quite a bit by the 2010s when Bakst and her organization noticed a flood of women seeking out legal advice because they were getting forced out of jobs when pregnant.

Activists for women hoped change would follow a 2015 Supreme Court decision on a case involving a UPS driver, but it’s been a disappointment. The ruling, essentially, required women to provide mountains of evidence to prove to an employer that their needs were reasonable.

Under the bill passed Thursday, women would instead need to work with their employers to figure out a reasonable accommodation in a good-faith process — just like the ADA. If the woman’s needs put a big burden on an employer, they don’t have to do anything.

The bill passed Thursday would also prohibit employers from firing women simply for asking for accommodations or not hiring a woman because she’s pregnant and might need some temporary fixes to work.

“It’s common sense,” said Vania Leveille, senior legislative counsel at the ACLU.

Spencer said the Chamber will now look at getting the legislation through the Senate, adding that it’s an appealing bill for lawmakers to support in an election year.

It’s hard to come out against the rights of pregnant women. “That ought to be a sympathetic group if there ever was one,” he said.

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