A New Law Extends Workplace Protections For Pregnant People. Does It Go Far Enough?
A new law known as the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (PWFA) quietly went into effect on June 27, after being passed in December 2022. While it hasn't been met with much fanfare, the act is a major milestone. The main improvement: previously, when pregnant workers asked for an accommodation from their employers — things as simple as more frequent breaks or a chair to sit in during long shifts — they had to prove that they truly needed the request. Now, employers are required to provide accommodations for pregnancy-related medical conditions, no hoop-jumping required.
"Under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA), enacted in 1978, pregnant workers have been entitled to temporary job modifications only if their employer provides them to others 'similar in their ability or inability to work,' an explainer posted by the American Civil Liberties Union states. "That language long has been used to deny needed 'accommodations' to pregnant workers, on the grounds that favored non-pregnant colleagues are insufficiently 'similar.'" By removing the need for pregnant people to identify "similar" non-pregnant coworkers, the PWFA should help actually protect pregnant workers, who have fallen through the gaps for too long.
"Especially for low-wage working women and women of color, especially Black and Latina women, there has been generations of undervaluing fair labor, even though that labor is the backbone of our economy," Elizabeth Gedmark, the vice president of A Better Balance: The Work & Family Legal Center, told PBS. "The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act is going to change that. We are going to see a shift because pregnancy discrimination will no longer be tolerated."
Many conditions related to being pregnant are covered in the PWFA, including accommodations related to fertility treatments, morning sickness, lactation and breastfeeding-related conditions, gestational diabetes, pregnancy loss, postpartum depression, and childbirth recovery. More on what's covered by the PWFA, here.
What Is the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act?
The PWFA is a bill that would prohibit employer discrimination against reasonable accommodations for "employees affected by pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions," as defined in its summary. The bill ultimately aims to put a stop to the decades-long discrimination practices that pregnant women have faced in the workplace.
What Rights Does the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act Guarantee?
The rights guaranteed by the PWFA range from necessary bathroom breaks to better seating accommodations. "[I]t will no longer be the case that pregnant workers can be ousted from their jobs for simply requesting basic accommodations like permission to sit on a stool, carry a bottle of water, or take additional bathroom breaks," Fatima Goss Graves, President and CEO of the National Women's Law Center (NWLC) said in a Dec. 2022 statement. "The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act will make a positive impact on women's lives — especially for those working in low-paid jobs, which are the most likely to be physically demanding and the least likely to offer flexibility to pregnant workers who need it."
If you want to read the exact wording, as stated in the bill's summary, the bill declares that it's an unlawful employment practice to:
- fail to make reasonable accommodations to known limitations of such employees unless the accommodation would impose an undue hardship on an entity's business operation;
- require a qualified employee affected by such condition to accept an accommodation other than any reasonable accommodation arrived at through an interactive process;
- deny employment opportunities based on the need of the entity to make such reasonable accommodations to a qualified employee;
- require such employees to take paid or unpaid leave if another reasonable accommodation can be provided; or
- take adverse action in terms, conditions, or privileges of employment against a qualified employee requesting or using such reasonable accommodations.
Is Everyone Covered By the PWFA?
Small employers, who staff fewer than 15 employees, aren't covered by the PWFA. And employers do have the ability to prove that a requested accommodation might create "undue hardship," and therefore isn't possible for them to fulfill. But experts expect that will be a difficult thing to prove, since pregnancy accommodations are temporary. And placing the burden of proof back on the employer, rather than the pregnant worker, is a huge step forward.