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.
However, workplace discrimination is just as prevalent for pregnant workers as it is for others. Too often, it leads to terrible outcomes.
Tasha Murrell worked at an XPO Logistics warehouse near 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. Her employer refused to allow her to modify her duties despite this fact and the stomach pain she was feeling. While working one day, she spoke out to a supervisor about her pain and asked if it was possible for her to return home before the deadline. She was told no. She went on to have a miscarriage.
Other workers have been treated similarly when they asked for lighter work, or to work indoors instead of outdoors in the heat. Some have had to take unpaid leaves, were pushed from their jobs, or even fired for asking for accommodation that would allow them to have a healthy child. Many of them have lost their jobs and their incomes as a result.
A new bill passed the House in 2021, with overwhelming bipartisan support. This bill could finally end these practices. 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. This could include more bathroom or water breaks, the possibility to sit while they work, relief from hazardous tasks or heavy lifting, schedule changes, space for pumping breast milk, and other accommodations.
Most would be modest adjustments to a worker’s responsibilities and none would be required if they imposed “undue hardship” on the employer. Even these minor modifications could make the difference between a healthy pregnancy, financial security for workers, and very real risk for mothers, babies, and their families.
The act is now on Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s (D-N.Y.) desk. This bill should be brought to floor immediately. A bill that is essential to a successful pregnancy and the ability to work should not be held up. Isn’t it time to do the right thing for pregnant workers?
This country isn’t surprised that pregnant workers face so much difficulty on the job. It has a terrible track record of supporting families and women. 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. Many workers have to continue working up to the day of giving birth and return to work within a few weeks. This is despite fact that the human body can take months or even years to fully recover from the physical and emotional tolls of childbirth.
These women often persevere through the difficulties because they need the income or health insurance that their employer provides. Others love what they do and would rather 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. These would provide real benefits for pregnant workers by allowing them the ability to care for their baby and keep their job. But ultimately, this will benefit society as a whole. Why? Because more women can stay in the workforce which is vital for economic growth.
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’s no excuse, there is a lot of support for this bill. Not just in 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 (PWFA) to the Senate Floor. Any delay will be fatal, resulting in the bill’s death and significant repercussions for families and women for decades. It isn’t difficult to request simple accommodations at work that will allow workers to have healthy pregnancies without putting their financial security at risk. In fact, it’s pretty basic. It takes only one vote.
Martha Nolan is Senior Policy Advisor at HealthyWomen. HealthyWomen educates women between the ages of 35 and 64 on how to make informed decisions about their health.