Family

Pregnant workers gain new legal protections. Here’s what you need to know.

Not long after Tuscaloosa, Ala. police officer Stephanie Hicks returned to duty after having a baby, she was forced out of her job when she asked for lactation accommodations.

Kimberlie Durham, a paramedic, requested temporary light duty while she was pregnant because her doctor told her it wasn’t safe to lift more than 50 pounds. Her employer refused.

Georgia factory worker Katiara McAlister was fired from her manufacturing job after leaving work one morning due to severe bleeding and cramping that she feared was a miscarriage.

Stories like those aren’t uncommon to hear from pregnant and nursing workers, said Elizabeth Gedmark, vice president at A Better Balance, a nonprofit organization that provides legal services for pregnant workers and caregivers, and advocates for family-friendly workplace policies.

But this year, a new landmark federal civil rights law could change all of that.

The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, which goes into effect in June, protects pregnant and postpartum workers from being forced out of their jobs and gives them the right to ask for the accommodations they need to remain healthy while working.

“This law was designed to cover gaps in our civil rights law,” said Gedmark. “I believe it’s going to help millions of pregnant workers across the country.”

Here Reckon News breaks down what you need to know about your new workplace rights.

Who does the law cover?

Full-time, part-time, temporary and seasonal workers who work for private employers with at least 15 employees. It also applies to government workers and to people applying for jobs.

What does the law do?

It gives workers the right to ask for and receive “reasonable accommodations” for pregnancy, childbirth and related medical conditions.

A few examples that could be reasonable accommodations: - temporary transfer to a less physically demanding or safer position - additional or more flexible breaks to drink water, eat a snack or use the bathroom - providing a stool for the worker to sit on or allowing the worker to keep a water bottle at a work station - flexible scheduling for doctor’s appointments

Read more: Fired for having a baby? Alabama is OK with that.

There is a caveat: The employer doesn’t have to provide the requested accommodation if the employer can prove it would be an “undue hardship” – such as being significantly difficult or expensive to provide.

The new law requires an employer to have a good-faith conversation with the worker who’s asking for reasonable accommodations. The employer can’t retaliate or force out an employee for those requests.

Why did pregnant people need new workplace protections?

Existing federal law just didn’t go far enough, said Gedmark. Pregnant workers were losing their claims in court, she said, because it was so difficult for them to prove discrimination under the existing federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act or the Americans with Disabilities Act. Nearly 75% of pregnancy discrimination cases filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission result in no required workplace change or monetary benefit, according to a report from the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

And at the state level, 20 states – mostly in the South and Midwest – still don’t have their own pregnant workers fairness laws on the books, leaving workers in those states without protections.

Nearly a quarter of mothers have considered leaving their jobs due to a lack of reasonable accommodations or fear of discrimination during pregnancy, according to a recent poll from Morning Consult and the Bipartisan Policy Center. One in five said they’ve experienced pregnancy discrimination in the workplace.

Certain categories of workers have been more likely to face discrimination or get turned down for accommodation requests.

“We were seeing those who were lower-wage workers or who were in physically demanding jobs like warehousing, the healthcare sector or construction were the ones most in need of this law,” Gedmark said.

“Also disproportionately affected are women of color who, due to systemic racism and sexism, are often in those jobs and face additional discrimination.”

Read more: Thousands are missing work to care for their kids. Here’s how we could fix it.

Healthcare, retail, food services and manufacturing industries account for the most pregnancy discrimination charges filed with the EEOC, according to a National Partnership for Women & Families analysis. These are also industries where more than half of workers are women and a disproportionate number are women of color.

Black women make up just 14% of the female labor force but account for 28% of pregnancy discrimination charges filed with the EEOC.

When do the new rights take effect?

June 27, 2023

How do I learn more?

A Better Balance put together an explainer on the new law, with more details about what’s covered and how.

Gedmark also encourages anyone who has questions about their workplace rights to call the organization’s free and confidential legal helpline at 1-833-633-3222.

“This is going to be transformational for the lives of millions of women and their families across the country,” Gedmark said.

Read more: Forget ‘family values.’ Gives working parents what they really want.

Anna Claire Vollers

Anna Claire Vollers | avollers@reckonmedia.com

I report mainly on reproductive and maternal health, working parents and family policy at Reckon News.

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