There is a short list of things we can all agree on — summer vacations are the best; sequels are never as good as the original movie; Diet Dr. Pepper tastes close to the real thing. After the last year, I’d like to think we can add “fair treatment for pregnant workers” to the list. But while states around the country seem to agree that this is an utterly noncontroversial statement, Congress just can’t seem to get on board.
While many women can work through pregnancy without needing any changes in their daily work, some women have a medical need for temporary modifications in job policies or duties in order to continue working safely through their pregnancies. Women like Hilda Guzzman. Hilda stood on her feet for eight to ten hours at a time in her job as a cashier and started to experience premature labor pains as a result. She asked her employer if she could sit on a stool while working the cash register. Her employer refused to accommodate her pregnancy-related impairment and she was forced out of her job. Without an accommodation, Hilda was unable to work for the remainder of her pregnancy. She lost her income at the very moment her financial needs were increasing.
Unfortunately, Hilda’s story is not unique. All too often, when pregnant women request a temporary change in the workplace — such as a reprieve from heavy lifting or the right to drink water during a shift — their employers are denying the request and pushing pregnant women out of their jobs. In fact, one survey [PDF] estimated that a quarter of a million pregnant workers are denied their requests for reasonable workplace accommodations nationally every year. When pregnant women are unnecessarily forced off the job instead of being accommodated, their families suffer a devastating loss of income at a time when both their health and economic security are absolutely critical. Women and families deserve better.
States and municipalities have gotten this message loud and clear. In just a little more than a year, West Virginia, New York City, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Illinois, Maryland, and Minnesota have all passed pregnancy accommodations laws. These laws make it unmistakably clear that employers must make reasonable accommodations for employees who have limitations in their ability to work arising out of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions, unless these accommodations would pose an undue hardship for employers. And legislators aren’t just passing bills to protect pregnant workers — they are doing so with overwhelming, bipartisan support. In West Virginia, New York City, Philadelphia, and Illinois the bills passed unanimously, and in New Jersey only a single state representative voted against it. And every indication is the wave of support is just getting started. Legislation in other states, like Delaware and New York, is still pending but has seen unanimous support so far.
But there is no reason why this should only be a state and local effort. The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (PWFA) is pending in both houses of Congress. Like the recently passed state laws, the PWFA would require employers to reasonably accommodate pregnant workers who need it so that they can continue working safely through their pregnancies. In the last year, support for the PWFA has grown to 26 Senators and 128 Representatives. Yet, not a single Republican in Congress has been willing to stand up in support of this simple, straightforward principle.
The momentum across the country should send a loud message to Congress: action to ensure fair treatment for pregnant workers is commonsense, common ground policy we should all be able to agree on and PWFA deserves the same bipartisan, resounding support.