By Amal Bass, WLP Staff Attorney
On Tuesday, January 21, 2014, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie signed into law a bill that expands the anti-discrimination and anti-retaliation protections of New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD). The NJLAD will now require employers to provide reasonable accommodations — such as rest periods, bathroom breaks, or access to water — to employees with needs related to pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions. The New Jersey legislature passed this bill unanimously in the state Senate in November and almost unanimously in the General Assembly earlier this month.
This law will fill the gaps in the protection for pregnant workers provided by the existing laws, such as Title VII’s Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). While the PDA prohibits employers from discriminating against workers on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions, courts have interpreted it narrowly to exclude protection in many situations. For example, many courts have permitted employers to provide accommodations only to workers with limitations arising from on-the-job injuries and have permitted employers to treat all employees equally badly by denying all requests for accommodations (when those requests do not arise from ADA-covered disabilities).
The ADA, as amended in 2008 to expand the definition of “disability” to include temporary and less severe impairments, may require employers to provide some pregnant women with reasonable accommodations in the workplace, as long as those accommodations do not impose an undue hardship on the employer. However, it remains to be seen how the courts will apply the new protections to pregnant workers whose employers have denied their requests for reasonable accommodations. While a pregnancy-related impairment that substantially limits a major life activity may be a disability under the ADA, pregnancy itself is not a disability. In many situations, the employee is having a healthy pregnancy and needs only a minor accommodation.
These gaps in the law can have serious consequences for pregnant workers and their families. When an employer denies a request for a reasonable accommodation, such as help with heavy lifting or access to a chair, the employee may be forced to: (1) continue working under conditions that place her health and the health of her pregnancy at risk, (2) exhaust any leave she may have had prior to the birth of her baby, and/or (3) leave her job to protect her health, often resulting in loss of employer-provided health insurance in addition to loss of income. Women who are forced to leave the workforce under these circumstances, which results in a gap in employment and a loss of seniority, are at risk for reduced income throughout their working lives.
Now, with these expansions to the NJLAD, women in New Jersey will be better able to stay employed throughout the duration of their pregnancies, maintain their health, and increase their ability to provide for their families financially over the long-term.
Women in Pennsylvania deserve the same rights in the workplace as they would have in New Jersey, in several other states, including California and Hawaii, and in New York City. Philadelphia City Councilmembers Greenlee, Reynolds Brown, and Bass have introduced a bill that would protect women in Philadelphia, and, as part of the Pennsylvania Agenda for Women’s Health, Representative Mark Painter (D-Montgomery) and Senator Matt Smith (D-Allegheny) have announced plans to introduce a similar bill on the state level. Additionally, in the hopes of expanding these rights nation-wide, Senator Bob Casey (D-Pennsylvania) has introduced the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act.
No woman should be forced to choose between the health of her pregnancy and her job — regardless of the state in which she works.