The two-hour public meeting hosted by the Pennsylvania House Committee on Labor & Industry last Thursday went well, particularly for the way the conversation revealed the opposition’s lack of a convincing argument against closing the gaps in workplace protections for pregnant and nursing workers in Pennsylvania.
First, some background: The Pennsylvania Legislature is currently considering two bills.
- The Pennsylvania Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (HB1176)would require covered employers to make reasonable accommodations related to pregnancy, childbirth or related medical conditions unless those accommodations would prove an undue hardship on the business.
- The Sanitary Conditions for Nursing Mothers Act (HB1100)would help salaried women not covered by the Affordable Care Act and require their employers to provide break time and a private, sanitary space to express breast milk; small employers who are able to prove that this minor accommodation would be an undue hardship would be exempt.
Both bills are part of the PA Agenda for Women’s Health, a legislative package of evidence-based policy crafted specifically to address—and turn around—the abysmal state of women’s health and economic security in the state.
Amal Bass, staff attorney at the Women’s Law Project, testified in support of the legislation alongside Katja Piguar, director of Breastfeeding Services for Maternity Care Coalition and Lisa McCloskey, RN and executive committee member of the Pennsylvania Breastfeeding Coalition.
From Bass’ testimony regarding Sanitary Conditions for Nursing Mothers:
At the Women’s Law Project, we often hear from women in Pennsylvania whose employers have denied them time or space to express breast milk. Many of these women resort to pumping in unsanitary places like bathroom stalls or their own cars. Women may have to skip pumping entirely while at work, causing them to experience significant physical pain, an increased risk of infection, and a decrease in milk supply.
Women who are denied time and private, sanitary space to pump milk at work also stop nursing altogether, which is part of the reason breastfeeding rates in Pennsylvania are far below the national average. (The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that, when possible, mothers breastfeed their babies exclusively for six months, then breastfeed supplemented by other food until the child’s first birthday and for as long thereafter as mutually desired.)
Currently, twenty-seven states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and Philadelphia have protections similar to those proposed in the Sanitary Conditions for Nursing Mothers bill, which would essentially extend the protections workers in Philadelphia enjoy to women in the rest of the state.
Bass also addressed the gaps in legal protection from pregnancy discrimination. “With H.B. 1176, Pennsylvania has the opportunity to clarify pregnant workers’ rights and employers’ obligations in a way that protects women and their families while utilizing a legal framework that minimizes the burden on employers,” testified Bass.
The argument made by representatives of the business community against this legislation will be familiar to anyone who has attended any kind of hearing on anti-discrimination legislation. In short, the opposition argued that passing these bills will confuse business owners by creating new, conflicting regulations that will invite opportunists to file frivolous lawsuits.
Evidence shows this argument is baseless. As Bass pointed out in her testimony, 15 other states have already passed the equivalent of the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act. In Pennsylvania, thanks to local ordinances, Philadelphia workers and some Pittsburgh workers already enjoy the protections that the PA Pregnant Workers Fairness Act would extend to women living and working in the rest of the state. Yet, there has not been a barrage of frivolous lawsuits filed in the wake of standardizing protections for pregnant workers.
In fact, as Bass testified during the Q&A period, pregnancy discrimination lawsuits actually decreased after passing this legislation, in part because this legislation clarified the law for both business owners and workers.
With H.B. 1176, Pennsylvania has the opportunity to provide pregnant workers across the Commonwealth with a similar level of protection to what they have in Philadelphia–and what they have in New York City and several other states, such as our neighboring states of West Virginia, Delaware, Maryland, and New Jersey.
“It’s not new,” said Bass, “it’s just new to us.”
We are continuing to gather testimony from Pennsylvania workers about their experiences working while pregnant or nursing.
The deadline is this Wednesday, October 14. Directions on how to format testimony, and links to templates, can be found here.
Founded in 1974, the Women’s Law Project is the only public interest law center devoted to women’s rights in Pennsylvania. WLP is a founding member of the PA Campaign for Women’s Health, a growing collaboration of organizations and individuals calling for an end to ideological politics trumping common-sense policy solutions in Pennsylvania.