Philadelphia Can Protect Pregnant Workers from Discrimination

By Amal Bass, WLP Staff Attorney

On October 3, 2013, Philadelphia City Councilmember Greenlee, Councilmember Reynolds Brown, and Councilmember Bass introduced legislation that, if passed, will protect pregnant women who work in Philadelphia from discrimination in the workplace. The legislation requires employers to provide women with reasonable accommodations related to pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions.

It often comes as a surprise to women that, under our current laws, their employers often do not have to grant their requests for minor job modifications, such as requests to sit in a chair at work or to have help lifting heavy boxes, which some women need as their pregnancies progress. When an employer denies these requests, the women who need these accommodations are (1) forced to continue working under conditions that place their health and the health of their pregnancies at risk, (2) forced to exhaust any leave that might be available to them (often leaving none for after the birth of the baby), and/or (3) forced to leave their job.

As a result, pregnant women and their families find themselves without income and without health insurance (if employer provided). Women who are pushed out of the workforce due to pregnancy lose pay in the short-term and are at risk for diminished income throughout their working lives.

Existing anti-discrimination laws, such as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, amended by the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA), and 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. The 2008 amendments to the Americans with Disabilities Act, which require employers to make reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities, may also provide protection for some pregnant women.

However, there are too many gaps in these laws. For example, courts have ruled that the PDA does not offer a pregnant employee legal protections unless she can identify a non-pregnant employee who works in the same role, has virtually the same limitations, and who received better treatment from the employer.  Many pregnant employees are unable to identify such a person, often because they do not know what kinds of accommodations their employers have granted to other employees or what needs 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 the source of that incapacity is work-related.

While some states and localities, most recently New York City, have laws that fill these gaps, Pennsylvania and Philadelphia do not.  For women who work in Philadelphia, the City Council bill would ensure that pregnant women who are able to work with reasonable accommodations can keep their jobs. Specifically, the bill would amend the Philadelphia Fair Practices Ordinance to make it unlawful for an employer to:

Refuse to provide reasonable accommodations to an employee for needs related to pregnancy, childbirth, or a related medical condition, provided (i) the employee requests such accommodations and (ii) such accommodations will not cause an undue hardship to the employer.

This is a familiar framework for employers and courts because it is similar to the Americans with Disabilities Act. If passed, this law would help pregnant women stay employed, promoting the health and well-being of women and their families, while imposing only a minimal and temporary burden on employers.

The Women’s Law Project hears from women across the Commonwealth, including in Philadelphia, who would benefit from a law that prohibits employers from denying reasonable requests for accommodations due to pregnancy, childbirth, or a related medical condition:*

  • Makayla, an employee at a garden center, needed help lifting heavy plants while pregnant. Her employer refused her request, and she had no choice but to leave her job.
  • Tina, a health aid at a nursing home, needed help lifting a resident from the scooter to the bed while pregnant. Her employer denied her request and forced her to exhaust her Family Medical Leave (which is up to twelve weeks of unpaid leave available to some employees of some employers) before the birth of her baby. Tina lost her job.
  • Jessica, a pharmacist’s assistant, needed to sit down occasionally at her workplace while pregnant. Chairs were available for customers, but the pharmacy did not permit the staff to use them. Jessica lost her job.

Most of the women who have contacted the Women’s Law Project with these experiences are having healthy pregnancies, but need minor accommodations in the workplace as their pregnancies progress. In many cases, they are the primary or sole breadwinner for their families, and so the loss of their jobs places their families at great risk of poverty.

Philadelphia should do more to help these families, and passing Bill No. 130687 is an important step.

If you live in Philadelphia, please contact your councilmember and tell them why this issue matters to you.

*Identifying information has been removed to protect confidentiality.

About womenslawproject

The Women's Law Project creates a more just and equitable society by advancing the rights and status of all women throughout their lives. To this end, we engage in high-impact litigation, advocacy, and education.
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