New Federal Law to Protect Pregnant Workers

New legislation that offers additional legal protection for pregnant workers will come into effect on June 27. The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act will enable new and expectant mothers to make requests, such as a parking space closer to the office, more frequent rest breaks or more flexibility in work schedules to accommodate doctor visits. It will also provide additional protection for workers making such requests. This new law offers landmark civil rights legislation that will improve the health and economic security of women while also boosting morale and profitability of businesses, according to Liz Morris, deputy director of the Center for WorkLife Law at UC College of the Law, San Francisco.

Despite there already being some legal protection for pregnant workers, new requirements for businesses mean accommodations must be made for pregnancy. Business groups, medical associations and organized labor all supported this new legislation. The bill was part of a year-end spending deal passed by lawmakers in December, which also included new retirement savings rules and a ban on TikTok downloads on U.S. government-issued devices.

This legislation extends beyond office jobs to retail, restaurants, warehouses, hotels, healthcare and other industries. Women in these sectors may now request reasonable adjustments to be made during their pregnancy without fear of discrimination. Elizabeth Gedmark, vice president at A Better Balance, a legal advocacy organization that has been instrumental in pushing through this bill, stated that the new law is a “clear win” for new and expecting mothers.

Empowering Pregnant Women in the Workplace

Every year, around 3 million women continue to work while pregnant. The numbers reveal that more than half of women in the US workforce were pregnant last year. It’s an essential aspect of these women’s lives, allowing them to maintain their financial independence and job prospects. However, they face job discrimination while pregnant, leading to a significant barrier in achieving their professional goals. Therefore, it’s essential for pregnant women to know their rights and legal backing to enjoy professional accommodations during this critical phase.

Understanding Federal Laws

Thankfully federal laws have outlawed firing and employment discrimination based on pregnancy, childbirth, and related medical conditions. The Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 is an amendment to Civil Rights Act 1964, aimed at protecting the rights of pregnant employees. Also, some changes in the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 oblige businesses to set up reasonable accommodations for disabled employees.

Carol Miaskoff, the legal counsel at Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), affirms that these laws “fill a space where there really was only spotty protection at the federal level.” However, pregnant employees still face challenges to justify their need for workplace alternatives. Before seeking any change at work, female workers had to provide solid evidence that other co-workers were receiving similar treatment.

A Step Forward

But the scenario has improved for pregnant women with a recent amendment to federal law according to Morris and Gedmark. The change allows women to directly ask for accommodations without providing comparative evidence. The empowering aspect of this rule will allow them to confidently discuss their requirements with their bosses while knowing that legal backing is on their side. This step aims to fill the previous gaps in the legal framework and protect this vulnerable section of society.

Protecting Pregnant Workers: What Accommodations Does the Law Provide?

The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act offers multiple protections to pregnant employees in the workplace. These encompass measures such as allowing expectant women to carry food or water with them, reducing or eliminating heavy lifting duties, providing more comfortable uniforms, and – where appropriate – working from home. The law also extends these accommodations to cover postpartum periods and includes breastfeeding workers, whose employers are required to allow sufficient time to pump milk.

This federal legislation complements over 30 separate state and local laws for pregnant workers. Paid leave is not currently a universal federal requirement, although Gedmark explained that some state and local regulations do offer this provision.

For pregnant workers who seek to discuss accommodation requests with their employers, sample letter templates and information on local workplace laws are available through A Better Balance.

Although the specific accommodations required might differ from case to case, Morris emphasized that the overall aim of the law is straightforward. “Just treat the employee humanely when they ask for what they need to stay healthy.”

Employers must comply with all accommodation requests unless they can prove that doing so would amount to an “undue hardship” on their operations. According to the EEOC, this would involve proving a “significant difficulty or expense for the employer.”

Who Must Comply with the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act?

Under the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, private-sector employers with a minimum of 15 employees, labor organizations, employment agencies, and public sector employers like federal agencies, Congress, and state and local governments must comply.

Filing Complaints

Additionally, when the law takes effect, workers can file charges or complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) if they lack accommodation under the law. However, the EEOC only accepts complaints about alleged violations that occurred on or after June 27th.

Workers who file a complaint through the EEOC are also protected from any retaliation by their employer.

Pregnancy Discrimination

In FY 2022, the EEOC reported receiving around 2,300 pregnancy discrimination complaints from workers. While this number has decreased from previous years, it remains a significant issue.

To sue an employer for discrimination against pregnant workers’ equal pay violations, individuals do not have to file a charge through the EEOC first.

Protecting Pregnant Workers

Laws like the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act provide vital protection for those who may be navigating pregnancy in the workplace and needing accommodations. It is essential to create economically stable situations for those who require accommodations during pregnancy.

According to Morris, the protections against retaliation are especially crucial. Mothers facing pregnancy are especially susceptible to economic vulnerability because they have a baby on the way. As such, they have to weigh the risks of standing up for themselves and what they need.

Moving Forward

While the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act is a step forward in protecting pregnant workers’ rights, there is still progress to make. The EEOC aims to raise awareness of these issues and support new and expectant mothers in their pursuit of healthy work-life balance. Now that they have an explicit right to make requests, new mothers should communicate their needs to their employers.

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