Having a Kid Shouldn’t Cost People Their Careers

Source: Thinkstock

Source: Thinkstock

The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, which was introduced to the House and Senate in May, is gathering dust. The legislation is backed by President Obama and would provide important protections for pregnant workers, but it has failed to garner even a single Republican co-sponsor after being first introduced into the House and Senate nearly five months ago.

The bill’s purpose is to “eliminate discrimination and promote women’s health and economic security by ensuring reasonable workplace accommodations for workers whose ability to perform the functions of a job are limited by pregnancy, childbirth, or a related medical condition.”

Sounds straightforward enough, right? But Republicans in the House and Senate consider the bill to be potentially detrimental to businesses because, like the Paycheck Fairness Act, they consider it to be an “unnecessary burden,” which has the potential to lower overall profits. Republicans are also concerned about the potential for worker protection bills such as the PFA and PWFA to encourage “frivolous lawsuits.”

Here’s why the grumbling about the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act matters. Last year, Bene’t Holmes — a 25-year-old single mother and Walmart employee — became pregnant again. Four months into her pregnancy, Holmes says she began having trouble lifting 50 pound boxes on the job, and her doctor concluded that she needed lighter, less strenuous work duties. Holmes put in a request with the store’s manager that she be temporarily allowed to do lighter work; the manager denied her request, explaining that when she took the job, she knew she was expected to be able to lift 50 pounds. The next day, Holmes had a miscarriage on the job. “She miscarried her child, and only because her employer did not think enough of her, as a woman, as a human being, to make reasonable accommodations,” said Illinois state representative Mary Flowers, who helped bring a version of the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act to the Illinois General Assembly, according to the Washington Post.

Similarly, Peggy Young was a 42 year-old UPS driver in Maryland who also requested temporary lighter duty on her doctor’s orders, rather than continue to lift heavy packages as her pregnancy grew more advanced. UPS refused to accommodate her, saying that they were not required to provide lighter duty to pregnant workers, but only to those injured on the job or those who had lost their driver’s licenses. Young sued UPS in federal court. Not one, but two lower courts ruled in favor of UPS, and the case has now moved to the Supreme Court.

It’s worth noting that Holmes and Young are just two among hundreds of women who report similar stories. “When you lift heavy weights, blood flow is temporarily diverted from your internal organs to your muscles,” says Dr. Raul Artal, the lead author of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists’ (ACOG) guidelines for exercise and pregnancy. “This could prevent nutrients and oxygen from getting to the baby,” Artal said in an interview with Women’s Health.

Further, The American Medical Association warns against moms-to-be standing on the job for longer than five hours at a time, and “suggests modification so that a break is taken every four hours. They also suggest that work positions be varied (from standing to sitting to walking around),” according to NBC News.

Young’s supporters and other advocates of the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act argue that not supporting accommodations for these women is a social injustice, and in addition, could be damaging to the U.S. economy, considering recent statistics produced by the National Women’s Law Center show that 41 percent of women are their family’s primary breadwinner. “Under their interpretation, pregnant workers are pretty much the only who don’t get accommodations,” said Ariela Migdal, a senior staff attorney for the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project. “It’s really sex discrimination that’s at stake.”

“This makes common sense not just for maternal and child health, but as good, sound economics,” said Delaware state senator Bethany Hall-Long, per the Washington Post. “Women are more and more breadwinners of their families. If you make them use up all their leave before they give birth, or terminate their employment because they need an accommodation, you have created an economic situation for that family that then may need to rely on Medicaid, or other social supports.”

“We shouldn’t have to debate this in the 21st century,” said Senator Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, in an e-mail with the Washington Post. “But the facts of this case make it clear that far too many pregnant women suffer workplace discrimination.” The bill has continued to languish in Washington, however, with GovTrack.us, a government transparency website, estimating that it has just a 1 percent chance of becoming law.

As a result, states have decided to take matters into their own hands. Many states have passed their own similar measures through unanimous or bipartisan efforts, and laws protecting pregnant workers now exist in 13 states as well as New York City, Philadelphia, Providence, Rhode Island, and Central Falls, Rhode Island, according to A Better Balance, a nonprofit organization that aims to “promote equality for men and women at all income levels so they may care for families without sacrificing economic security.”

While it’s good news that similar pieces of legislation are flying through many state legislatures, without federal protection, women in situations like Holmes’s or Young’s could still be left vulnerable to termination or be forced to take unpaid leave. The Washington Post notes that women in “low wage retail, health, and service industries are often hit the hardest … as are women in fields that traditionally have had few women, such as law enforcement.”

President Obama has addressed the issue as part of the recent White House Summit on Working Families, which happened in June. “Right now, if you’re pregnant, you could potentially get fired for taking too many bathroom breaks,” the President said in a speech in which he called on lawmakers to pass the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act.

UPS, for its part in Young’s case, stands by its decision to deny Young accommodations. “UPS is committed to a fair workplace and has consistent policies to prevent discrimination and adhere to our legal obligations,” said UPS spokesperson Susan Rosenberg in an e-mail to the Washington Post. “This was validated by both district and appellate courts,” she added.

In response, more than 120 Democratic lawmakers in Congress, as well as women’s and civil rights advocates, women business leaders, and a bipartisan group of state legislators have filed friends-of-the-court briefings in support of Peggy Young. Amicus briefs for UPS are due in October, and the Supreme Court will begin hearing oral arguments in December, the Washington Post reports.

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