New York City has just given an important boost to the rights of pregnant workers with a new law that will ensure that women across the five boroughs do not have to fear losing their jobs because they need simple modifications to their routine to safeguard their own and their babies' health.
The NYC Pregnant Workers Fairness Act means, for example, that the Manhattan retail worker who recently passed out and had to be rushed to the emergency room because her boss wouldn't let her drink water on the job will, in the future, have the law on her side and the ability to push back against unreasonable demands.
It means that pregnant women can now request a stool to sit on while working at the register, ask to be reassigned away from heavy lifting, or take some time to safely recover from childbirth without risking their job for doing so.
New York City Councilmember James Vacca is to be applauded for introducing the legislation, as is Speaker Christine Quinn, who made it part of her women's issues platform. But there is still much work to do. A similar provision to protect the rights of pregnant workers is included in Governor Andrew Cuomo's Women's Equality Act but has stalled in the state legislature in Albany and risks expiring altogether at the end of the year if no further action is taken.
Getting traction in the U.S. Congress is an even greater challenge, although a similar bill, the federal Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (PWFA), was introduced in the House last year by Representative Jerrold Nadler and Representative Carolyn Maloney of New York. Senator Bob Casey and Senator Jeanne Shaheen introduced a Senate version last year and both versions were re-introduced earlier this year. In July, Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi included it in her economic agenda for women and families.
My organization, A Better Balance, has been fighting for such legislation as a matter of basic fairness. At a time when unemployment is still sky-high and many families depend on the earning power of both parents, economic security is paramount. As we documented in a report we recently co-wrote with the National Women's Law Center, when women experience pregnancy discrimination at work, the financial consequences can be felt for years to come because of both lost income and lost benefits.
Protecting pregnant workers makes sense for business-owners too. Employers need consistency and clarity in the labor laws so they are not at risk from costly litigation. They also benefit from keeping valued workers. The costs associated with the workplace adjustments in this legislation are modest to nonexistent.
A Better Balance will not rest until all women across New York, not just in the city, receive the same protections.
New York currently ranks in the bottom ten states for women's poverty ratings; one way to improve that dismal showing in a hurry is to avoid needless discrimination in the workplace at the very moment they are starting or expanding their families.
In short, we need women to stay healthy while earning a paycheck. New York shouldn't lag behind the rest of the country on this. As yesterday's city council vote showed, with enough political will we can in fact point the way for everyone else.