By Amal Bass, WLP Staff Attorney
Women are often surprised to learn that they do not have as many rights in the workplace as they expect to have in the 21st Century. More often than not, an employer does not have to grant a pregnant woman’s request for a minor job modification, such as a chair or help lifting heavy boxes, which some women need as their pregnancies progress. As a result, pregnant women who could have worked with a reasonable accommodation lose their jobs and find themselves without economic security and without health insurance at a time when access to health care is essential.
Existing anti-discrimination laws, such as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended by the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA), and similar state laws like the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act, prevent employers from treating pregnant women differently from non-pregnant employees who are similar in their ability or inability to work. But these laws do not protect pregnant employees in nearly as many situations as they should.
For example, courts have ruled that the PDA does not offer a pregnant employee legal protections unless she can identify a non-pregnant employee (1) who works in the same role, (2) has virtually the same limitations, and (3) is treated better by the employer than the pregnant woman. Many pregnant employees are unable to identify such a person, often because they simply do not know what kinds of accommodations their employers have granted to other employees or what limitations those other employees have. Furthermore, some courts have allowed employers to refuse to accommodate pregnant employees even when they accommodate non-pregnant employees with similar limitations, if those limitations are work-related.
While some states have laws that protect these pregnant employees better than the current federal law does, Pennsylvania does not.
The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act would fill this gap in the law on a national level, ensuring that pregnant women who are able to work with reasonable accommodations can keep their jobs. S.942 was reintroduced on May 14, 2013 by Senators Bob Casey and Jeanne Shaheen and Representatives Jerrold Nadler, Carolyn Maloney, Jackie Speier, Susan Davis, and Marcia Fudge, the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act would:
- Require employers to make reasonable accommodations to employees who have limitations on the job related to their pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical condition, unless the accommodation would impose an undue hardship on the employer.
- Prohibit employers from retaliating against employees who need an accommodation.
- Prohibit employers from forcing a pregnant employee to accept an accommodation she does not want.
Prohibit employers from forcing a pregnant employee to take unpaid or paid leave if a reasonable accommodation is available.
If passed, this law would help pregnant women stay employed, promoting the health and well-being of mothers and their families, while imposing only a minimal and temporary burden on employers.
One woman who would have benefited from a law like this — a woman who lives in Pennsylvania and called the Women’s Law Project for help — worked at a garden center and needed help lifting heavy plants while pregnant. Her employer refused her request, and she had no choice but to leave her job.
Women should not have to make a choice between having a healthy pregnancy and keeping their jobs. It’s time to change the law.