Whatever our political conflicts, we can generally agree that we should treat pregnant women nicely. We don’t hesitate to help them carry their groceries or give them a seat on the bus. Yet when pregnancy comes up as a political issue, lawmakers are far more fixated on what an expecting mom’s womb is doing, rather than her hands—as she slips the check under your plate and hopes for a decent tip—or her mind—as she loses sleep wondering whether she’ll lose her job as her due date nears.
Under current law, it’s easy for bosses to mistreat pregnant women or force them off the job. Yet the men who run Congress are too busy sponsoring anti-abortion bills and slashing social programs, it seems, to protect pregnant women in the workplace. One of the many labor bills left off the congressional radar is the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, (PWFA) which would help prevent pregnant women from being arbitrarily fired and make employers better accommodate them.
According to the National Partnership for Women and Families, the PWFA builds on existing anti-discrimination laws by extending specific protections to pregnant employees. The legislation directs employers to “make reasonable accommodations” for an employee or job applicant’s limitations stemming from “pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions,” unless this would pose “undue hardship” on the business. In addition, as the New York Times’ Motherlode explains, the law would bar employers from “using a worker’s pregnancy to deny her opportunities on the job [or] force her to take an accommodation that she does not want or need.” The bill also directs the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to set regulations for implementing these laws, including “a list of exemplary reasonable accommodations.”
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It was introduced earlier this year in the House and this month in the Senate—and not surprisingly, faces pretty bleak odds for being enacted.
The bill expands on legislation passed in the 1970s that protects women from discrimination related to pregnancy. Those earlier policies have been interpreted in such a way as to let companies refuse to make reasonable adjustments for pregnant workers. Similarly, federal and state family-and-medical-leave acts protect women from discrimination related to a seeking medical care, including for pregnancy. But many expecting mothers are left unprotected by these measures; the FMLA for example covers only unpaid leave—not the paid leave time that’s essential to protect the health of workers and their families—and generally only workplaces of 50 or more employees.
The PWFA would not shield expectant women from mistreatment altogether. The “undue burden” clause may give employers some leeway, for instance, to refuse to provide accommodations in job duties or schedules for a mom-to-be. Still, the measure would press firms to make sensible modifications for pregnant workers, such as no longer lifting heavy weights.
As with many women’s rights issues, this is also a matter of economic fairness. About 60 percent of women who gave birth in a given year also worked during that time, according to recent data; many moms are primary breadwinners, too. Making workplaces more pregnancy-friendly isn’t about coddling women; it’s about putting pregnancy on par with other medical or physical challenges workers face. Sarah Crawford, director of workplace fairness at the National Partnership, noted in an email to Working In These Times:
The result for working pregnant women is that they are too often forced to quit or take unpaid leave because their employer denies them reasonable accommodations that are lawfully required for other workers with temporary disabilities.
Losing work a double-blow for pregnant women who need to prepare financially for a new member of the household. Even if they’re not outright fired, Crawford points out, “some employers force pregnant workers into unpaid leave prematurely, which means that women are forced to take a heavy financial hit just as they are about to give birth.”
Moreover, if a pregnant woman is unfairly fired, she may have trouble simply getting hired as a new mom, which some employers may see as a liability. (Not to mention affording quality child care so she can hold onto that new job).
The National Partnership also notes major health implications for women who lose a job during pregnancy, and for their babies: The stress incurred may raise “the risk of having a premature baby and/or a baby with low birth weight.” If she can earn more before having the baby, she can potentially take more time off for maternity leave—meaning more time for bonding, breastfeeding and other essential nurturing tasks for parents that our labor structure tends to ignore.
Ironically, companies themselves suffer when they arbitrarily dismiss workers for pregnancy or childbirth-related reasons, because high workforce turnover is counterproductive in the long run.
Yet many workplaces still make women bear the brunt of the cost of childbearing. So next time you graciously offer your bus seat to a pregnant woman, just think about how our politicians fail to stand up for the labor rights of those who do the work of bringing us into the world.