Today, the House Committee on Education and Labor voted to advance the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (H.R. 2694) with bipartisan support. This piece of legislation, if passed, would be critical in protecting pregnant workers across the country from having to choose between having a healthy pregnancy and a paycheck. So far, the proposed law, which has commonly been introduced as “long overdue,” has been endorsed by the Women’s National Law Center, The American Civil Liberties Union and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Here’s exactly what the act, which resembles those passed by many states in the U.S. in the last few years, would do.
It takes the burden off of pregnant workers to request accommodations.
Federal law protections and legal precedents don’t really hold much water when it comes to protecting pregnant workers. Passed in 1978, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act really only covers classic discrimination—rather, it forbids discrimination based on pregnancy when it comes to hiring, firing, pay, job assignments, promotions, and fringe benefits, such as leave and health insurance. It doesn’t really get into accommodations territory. The 2015 Supreme Court Young v. UPS decision didn’t move the needle much further as the court found that employers were only required to accommodate pregnant women if the employer provided accommodation to any other non-pregnant employee of similar ability to work. This means the burden is on the pregnant woman to have a working knowledge of what accommodations have historically been made for other employees and then must use that knowledge to prove discrimination.
A 2019 report by A Better Balance found that since Young v. UPS, two-thirds of pregnant women asking for accommodations at work still lost when their cases went to court. The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act would aim to prevent many of these kinds of court cases from happening in the first place by dictating an affirmative right to accommodation, one that doesn’t solely rely on a discrimination argument.
It uses a framework for accommodation that employers are familiar with.
The law would require employers to provide reasonable accommodations to employees for pregnancy, childbirth and related medical conditions so long as the accommodation wouldn’t cause “an undue hardship” for the employer. That kind of language is something that is familiar to employers because it’s what is currently being used in the American Disability Act and has been for several decades. Should these kind of cases need to go to court, courts are familiar with interpreting these requirements as well.
It’ll bring benefits to employers as well, really.
Oftentimes worker protection laws are greeted with scrutiny or at least apprehension by business owners, but there are some clear benefits that would come to employers should this act go into effect. For one, it offers a lot more clarity on a subject that tends to be just as murky for business owners as it is for pregnant workers. By establishing a clear obligation, supported by a familiar framework, it sets an easily understood standard. This is particularly helpful for small businesses that might not have access to in-house counsel or the funds to retain an attorney to wade through the current patchwork system of laws pertaining to pregnant workers. And for businesses operating in multiple states within the country, this law will enact one federal standard to be followed across the board.
“Today, we send the message that nowhere on earth should a woman have to worry about her health and the health of her pregnancy because her employer refuses to oblige her reasonable needs for accommodation. In essence, we tell millions of young women that no longer will pregnancy prevent you from taking your dreams as far as they can take you,” said Rep. Alma Adams during today’s committee meeting.
Now that the legislation has passed committee, its next stop is to the House floor for a vote.