Bene’t Holmes, a 25-year-old single mother of a five-year-old son, worked at Walmart in Chicago when she became pregnant last year. Holmes describes having trouble lifting 50-pound boxes on the job when she was four months pregnant. Walmart’s written policy at the time was to provide reasonable accommodations for disabilities and on-the-job injuries, but not for pregnancy. Holmes knew that her work was putting excessive strain on her body, and her doctor said she needed temporary job duties that would be less physically strenuous. But according to Holmes, a store manager denied her request, explaining that when she took her job, she was expected to lift 50 pounds. The day after her request was denied, Holmes had a miscarriage while at work at Walmart.
Unfortunately, Holmes’ story is not unique. Today, more women are in the workforce than ever before and are working later into their pregnancies. While most women continue working throughout their pregnancies with no need for changes in their jobs, some—particularly those in physically demanding jobs—will need temporary adjustments to continue working safely. Frequently these women need only a simple accommodation—like avoiding heavy lifting for a few months, being permitted to sit occasionally during a long workday, or staying off high ladders.
But, across the country, many employers refuse to provide these temporary, reasonable modifications that would allow pregnant employees to continue working—even when they routinely accommodate non-pregnancy related disabilities. Too often bosses fire pregnant workers or push them onto unpaid leave. Other women continue to work without asking for accommodations because they cannot afford to lose their income. These women face a choice that no one should have to make: either risk their own health and pregnancy to keep a job or lose their income at the moment they can least afford it.
How can this be when the federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act—outlawing discrimination against pregnant workers—has been the law of the land for almost 35 years? The Pregnancy Discrimination Act requires employers to treat pregnant women as well as they treat those who have a similar ability to work. But courts have often ignored this requirement and narrowly interpreted the Pregnancy Discrimination Act’s protections, leaving women without recourse.
Here is the good news: Today, Governor Quinn is expected to sign the Illinois Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, a new law that passed unanimously earlier this year and will protect pregnant workers in Illinois from facing the same situation as Holmes. Yes, you read that right. Every legislator in Illinois recognized that fairness for pregnant workers just makes sense.
Now women in Illinois who are physically unable to perform some part of their job because of pregnancy will be guaranteed reasonable accommodations–the same type of accommodations employers already are clearly required under law to provide workers with temporary disabilities. The law in Illinois will now be unmistakable to employers and to courts: an employee who cannot lift heavy objects because of pregnancy must be accommodated if the employer can do so without undue hardship—just like the worker who cannot lift heavy objects because of a back injury. The law will allow pregnant women to continue working, earning crucial income for their families and contributing to the economy.
But the momentum should not stop here. The federal Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (PWFA) is currently pending in both houses of Congress. Like the recently passed state law, the federal 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 29 Senators and 135 Representatives–yet not a single Republican in Congress has supported this simple, straightforward principle that the Illinois legislature just embraced unanimously.
It is time for that to change. The new Illinois law provides commonsense protections for maternal health and workplace fairness that are long overdue—and the overwhelming support the bill garnered makes crystal clear that fair treatment for pregnant workers should be something we can all agree on.
Now it’s time for Washington to get the message.