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Pregnant Workers Fairness Act Aims to End Pregnancy Discrimination

Katlyn Joy |15, October 2012


In 1978 the Pregnancy Discrimination Act was passed with the intention of ending discriminatory treatment of pregnant employees. However, the law lacked the teeth to adequately protect pregnant women in their jobs.

A new bill, the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, is poised to make the difference and fill the gaps left by the 35 year old law. This bill was introduced to Senate by Senator Bob Casey (D-Pa) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) and to the House by Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.)

The bill intends to work much like disability legislation, where women who are pregnant will receive reasonable accommodations in order to continue working later in their pregnancies. For instance, a woman can get a stool to provide added support at her desk or be excused from heavy lifting if need be to protect her pregnancy.

The modifications to the work responsibilities or environment are dependent on the temporary conditions of pregnancy unlike under disability laws. The upside is that women will no longer have to worry about hiding their pregnancies from their employers or having to take maternity leave too early in their pregnancies.

Three quarters of women will be employed while pregnant at some point in their lives, so clearly this is an issue that affects the vast majority of American families. With economic realities weighing heavily on the family in the U.S. the strain of worrying how long a woman can work through her pregnancy can be a tremendous burden. This legislation could at least remove some of that pressure as women can receive reasonable adjustments to her work in order to keep at her job.

Examples of how women currently have been denied such job protections includes a Walmart worker who was fired for carrying a water bottle while pregnant to avoid dehydration, as ordered by her physician. Another example was an Old Navy employee who asked if she could be excused from climbing ladders or doing heavy lifting during her last several weeks of pregnancy. This worker was dismissed as well.

In 2010 41 percent of working mothers were the primary breadwinner or head of household. The impact of a law that would enable women to do their jobs with temporary adjustments or protections would be huge to families dependent on the pregnant woman's income.

The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has recently filed a number of suits against employers based on discrimination against pregnant workers. One of those involved an employer with a written policy of firing pregnant workers in their third month.

The EEOC is not waiting for the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act however. In its plan for the next four years, the EEOC is targeting discrimination claims where a disabled worker would be accommodated but the pregnant worker was not, and often instead fired. For instance, if a woman is to quit lifting heavy materials in her final weeks of pregnancy and instead of getting exempted temporarily from the job duty is instead dismissed or demoted while a worker with a back injury gets a temporary reprieve from such duties this is discrimination. Workers whether pregnant or disabled need to be treated fairly and it should be the employer's motivation to keep a worker on the job by providing temporary accommodations rather than going the dismissal route.

Unfortunately, the chances of the Pregnancy Workers Fairness Act's passage is slim. All sponsors of the bill are Democrat and the Republican controlled House is not prone to passing workplace legislation. Republicans in general believe workplace controls put too much pressure on businesses and will hurt the economy.

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