We need the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act

The National Women’s Law Center pulls together real women’s stories to explain why we need the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, which makes sure that all pregnant workers are able to get the minor workplace adjustments they need to continue working during their pregnancies. These aren’t major changes in job duties; they’re reasonable and small accommodations that make all the difference for pregnant people. A few examples:

When an airline ticket agent in Louisiana was told by her doctor not to lift anything heavy at work, she didn’t expect to run into problems at her job. The airline had allowed her to have a “light duty” assignment during her first pregnancy. But this time she was told that if she provided a doctor’s note requiring any work-related restrictions, she would be immediately placed on unpaid leave. Going months without a paycheck was not a viable option for her family so she continued to work. Throughout her pregnancy, she was repeatedly called on to lift heavy bags on and off the baggage ramp and required to work 10- and 12-hour days on her feet. Toward the end of her pregnancy, she incurred a condition called stress-induced toxemia. As a result, she went into labor prematurely and her child suffered numerous health complications.

Dr. Lucy Willis is a Board Certified physician specializing in emergency medicine, and she practices at New York Downtown Hospital in Manhattan. In the spring of 2012, she treated a pregnant woman who arrived in the emergency department during her shift. She was working as a cashier at a large retailer in the city and was 16 weeks pregnant. Despite doctor’s orders that she remain vigilant about drinking water, she was severely dehydrated. When Dr. Willis inquired why she was not drinking adequate amounts of fluids, she told her that her boss would not allow her to drink water while working at the cash register. While standing for hours at the register, the woman fainted and collapsed. She was rushed to the hospital by ambulance, where Dr. Willis ordered her intravenous fluids. According to Dr. Willis, “[d]ehydration can lead to miscarriage, and while pregnant women are already at increased risk of fainting (due to high progesterone levels causing blood vessel dilatation), dehydration puts them at even further risk of collapse and injury from falling.”

Jane Doe worked at a casual eatery in Washington, D.C., preparing food and working “on the line” serving customers. After Jane became pregnant, she needed more frequent bathroom breaks and to be allowed to drink water and eat on her scheduled breaks. Her supervisor yelled at her publicly when she returned from the bathroom, ordering her – but no one else – to notify all of the other employees and to get his consent before using the bathroom. Although employees were entitled to 15-minute breaks during their four-hour shifts, he often refused to let her take a break, even though she needed to eat because she was hungrier than usual as a result of her pregnancy. Her supervisor also denied her access to water during her four-hour shifts. When Jane asked for advance permission to leave early from a shift to attend a prenatal medical appointment, she got no response from her supervisor, despite asking him repeatedly for an answer. The day of the appointment her supervisor told her she could not leave and threatened to fire if she did. She explained it was an important prenatal appointment and she needed to go. She kept the appointment, and when she returned to work, he immediately fired her.

Laura works as a program counselor at a facility for people with developmental disabilities. When she was pregnant, her doctor recommended that she not bend or twist when securing wheelchairs to a bus. She asked her supervisor to allow her to make this minor adjustment to her job duties. Her supervisor responded by forcing Laura on to unpaid leave for the rest of her pregnancy, even though she was not disabled and could do her job with this minor accommodation. Her employer also threatened to fire her if she didn’t return to work in four months. After Legal Aid Society-Employment Law Center informed her employer of Laura’s right to a workplace accommodation under California law, Laura was reinstated and given the adjustment she needed. Laura recently had a healthy baby boy and is looking forward to returning to work. She believes that “all women should have this basic protection.”

Ridiculous, right? The NWLC makes it super easy to tell your Congressperson to support the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act. So head over there, fill out the simple message form, and help get basic workplace protections for pregnant workers. I just did it and it took about 15 seconds.


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About Jill

Jill began blogging for Feministe in 2005. She has since written as a weekly columnist for the Guardian newspaper and in April 2014 she was appointed as senior political writer for Cosmopolitan magazine.
This entry was posted in Discrimination, Law, Politics, Pregnancy and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

38 Responses to We need the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act

  1. Women the USA do not have the same maternity rights as those in the UK, but why not? A pregnant woman is not a strange creature she deserves to be treated fairly – but her needs and wants are different to her working colleagues and they must be seriously taken into account. They are only going to be pregnant for nine months and off for a few months more – continuing the human race – they have different needs so give them – it won’t kill you.

  2. Donna L says:

    Just out of curiosity, and I’m sure that there are many who would consider this a ridiculous question that’s relevant to only a tiny handful of people, but is the language of the proposed legislation gender-neutral, or does it protect only women?

  3. BHuesca says:

    I can see this working with larger employers, but not necessarily with smaller workplaces…for example, my dad has three employees and if one is sick or in need of additional breaks, there is no one to call in to replace the employee’s labor, and there is not always someone else to ask to (for example) lift heavy boxes.

    • EG says:

      So what does he do when an employee gets sick? Employees are human beings; employers can’t plan on them never getting sick or needing minor accommodations.

      • BHuesca says:

        They manage as best they can, but it is the patients that suffer (it is a dental office) – they suffer longer waiting times, and people that call in with toothaches or other emergencies can’t be squeezed in. So, yes, minor accommodations can be and are made, but it simply isn’t the same as the type of accommodations that can be made in a larger workplace.

      • Jill says:

        The first line of the bill says:

        It shall be an unlawful employment practice for a covered entity to–
        (1) not make reasonable accommodations to the known limitations related to the pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions of a job applicant or employee, unless such covered entity can demonstrate that the accommodation would impose an undue hardship on the operation of the business of such covered entity

        So that about covers your concerns.

      • Donna L says:

        Also, how is “covered entity” defined? A lot of laws like this simply don’t apply to employers that have less than a specified number of employees (like 15 or 25).

      • Past my expiration date says:

        Covered entity (somebody is going to have to explain to me what this definition means in plain language):

        (2) the term `covered entity’–

        (A) has the meaning given the term `respondent’ in section 701(n) of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (42 U.S.C. 2000e(n)); and

        (B) includes–

        (i) an employing office, as defined in section 101 of the Congressional Accountability Act of 1995 (2 U.S.C. 1301) and section 411(c) of title 3, United States Code;

        (ii) an entity employing a State employee described in section 304(a) of the Government Employee Rights Act of 1991 (12 U.S.C. 1220(a)); and

        (iii) an entity to which section 717(a) of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (42 U.S.C. 2000e-16(a)) applies;

      • Anon21 says:

        I think that’s a fair question to pose when it comes to taking time off for doctor’s appointments. But if a small business employee has some duties that are inconsistent with a healthy pregnancy (such as lifting heavy objects), I think it’s possible that there couldn’t be an accommodation. (I would distinguish the case of the airline ticket agent, above, where it seems like the airline would have plenty of other employees capable of taking on heavy lifting duties.)

        I don’t know if a situation like that is best handled by granting an exemption to small businesses, or best handled by taking the employer’s staffing levels and flexibility into account when determining whether a requested accommodation is reasonable. (Obviously, some accommodation requests wouldn’t be reasonable–e.g., a person hired primarily or solely to manually lift and move heavy objects probably should not be able to obtain, by law, an accommodation that eliminates those duties or assigns them a completely different job.)

      • Kerandria says:

        (Obviously, some accommodation requests wouldn’t be reasonable–e.g., a person hired primarily or solely to manually lift and move heavy objects probably should not be able to obtain, by law, an accommodation that eliminates those duties or assigns them a completely different job.)

        I completely disagree. I can imagine very few places where finding SOMETHING for someone to do for a few months wouldn’t be possible.

      • Anon21 says:

        I completely disagree. I can imagine very few places where finding SOMETHING for someone to do for a few months wouldn’t be possible.

        The question isn’t whether it’s possible, it’s whether it’s reasonable. The employer should not be forced by an employee’s pregnancy to give that employee a different job. The employer should be able to hire, say, a warehouse worker to be a warehouse worker, and not a temporary receptionist or an accountant because warehouse work isn’t possible during the duration of pregnancy.

  4. a lawyer says:

    Short explanation:

    As a functional matter, the proposed bill basically turns all pregnancy-related issues into covered disabilities under the ADA, insofar as it parrots the language for accommodations, etc.

    I don’t know what the job size cutoff would be but I doubt it would apply to anyone with fewer than 15 employees, which is the ADA Title 1 cutoff as well. (There are some exceptions, but I’m ignoring those.)

    Still, I do accommodation work (only for employees) and this is a bit odd. With ADA accommodations you need a disability (effect on major life activities) and only THEN do you get to demand accommodations for it.

    And under the ADA you can’t demand accommodations which aren’t warranted by your specific disability: if you can’t lift heavy objects due to your disability, you get an accommodation for that–but you don’t also get a desk near the window (unless that’s also a demonstrated ADA-qualified disability.)

    But that ADA determination is a complex procedure. You need to have some objective third party involved, for example.

    I’m sure that you would agree that employers aren’t able to judge when an employee is “OK to work.” Employers have obvious incentives to deny accommodations even when they are needed. But embarrassing though it may be to admit, there’s a similar problem on the other side: employees are human, too. If they can get accommodations that they don’t need, they’ll do it.

    Fortunately disabilities (of the major, ADA-qualifying type) tend to be at least reasonably static. Unfortunately pregnancy-related issues tend to vary HUGELY over the time of the pregnancy (usually but not always increasing as it goes on); and also vary HUGELY on a day by day basis, depending on how the mother feels; and also vary HUGELY between women.

    I don’t see an easy way to give individualized protections without either making it too unwieldy for the women (they can’t go to the doctor every day!) or too bizarre for the employer (they can’t be subject to ADA-like penalties just because someone says “I’m worse today than I was yesterday.”)

    My suspicion is that if this ever passes, it will require some major amendment to reflect these issues.

  5. Ptothe says:

    As an attorney with experience with ADA cases, I actually don’t think a law applying to pregnant persons would have to vary significantly from the ADA at all. For instance, some courts have upheld reasonable accommodation cases for people with fibromyalgia, which affects people differently and can change over time. Even post-partum issues would not pose too serious a challenge– depression, for instance, is a covered disability under the ADA. Even the most misogynist employer would admit that as a business decision, accommodating a pregnant employee is cheaper than fighting a law suit, and often an employee’s request is easily accommodated. That our current federal disability laws do not already cover pregnancy is a real shame (some state and local laws do), and it’s unfortunate that we have to take that fact into consideration when starting a family.

    • thefish says:

      Are there ADA like accommodations for non-permanent, but longish-term sickness, illness or other medical issue as well. (Like say about 9 months?) If there aren’t their definitely should be.

  6. GraceGrace says:

    This makes my heart hurt for all the woman who get fired for having to take time off and such. When is America going to get with the rest of the planet and get paid maternity leave?!

  7. Emolee says:

    Those stories are so upsetting and make me so angry. I cannot understand a person who does not let another human being drink water or use the bathroom. This treatment should not be allowed for any workers, pregnant or not. I guess there would be some positions where some regulation may be necessary, but please, in these situations it just sounds cruel.

  8. Emolee says:

    And the more I think about this, the angrier I get regarding the pregnancy discrimination as well. It is so misogynistic that accommodations for pregnancy and related medical issues are not already covered under the law. I guess I assumed they were. I don’t get why the fact that the disability is not permanent matters. I mean, are other temporary disabilities covered, like if someone breaks a leg?

    • SamLL says:

      I just did some cursory research – breaking a leg is apparently one of the classic examples of something that is not considered a disability for purposes of the ADA, because of its temporary nature.

      • Angie unduplicated says:

        True. Don’t try to use disabled parking if you have a broken leg or you will get ticketed. Been there.

      • Emolee says:

        Well, disabled parking is a good example of where this works. In most (maybe all) states, there are both temporary and permanent disabled parking placards. So, yeah, you can’t just use the disabled parking without a placard because you have a broken leg, but a broken leg would definitely qualify you to get a temporary placard from your doctor. So would certain complications arising from pregnancy. I don’t see why the ADA accommodations law should not apply to these temporary disabilities also, including pregnancy induced ones, in the same way. You would get a temporary accommodation from your employer, based on a doctor’s affidavit, as oppossed to a permanent one. (FWIW I am a person with a permanent disability).

  9. Ann R says:

    This is the exact reason we need paid maternity leave in this country. I cannot imagine telling another person that they cannot have something to drink when thirsty. Not to derail the topic at hand too much, but this whole “you eat when I say you eat, you drink when I say you drink” mentality that seems to permeate our culture needs to go. Our school system begins pushing this on children when they start kindergarten. At least where I attended elementary school we were never allowed to have any drink at our desk. We were only allowed to use the restroom at approved times. Lunch at 10:30? Sorry kids, no snacks for you. I vividly remember coming in from recess in elementary school when it was 90+ degrees out and only being allowed to have one, 3 second sip of water from the fountain and being so incredibly thirsty the rest of the day. This mentality ends up being carried over to employers as well. There is no reason a pregnant woman working a cash register cannot have a bottle of water. At most jobs, a 3 minute bathroom break is not going to throw a business into a tailspin.

    • Emolee says:

      I cannot imagine telling another person that they cannot have something to drink when thirsty.

      I know! It is sadistic. Employers need to treat employees like the human beings they are, not like robots. Yes, there may be certain jobs where having liquid around would be an issue (frequent water breaks could solve this), but a grocery store clerk is not one of them.

      I had a first grade teacher not let me use the bathroom even after I repeatedly asked… it did not end well. At least my mother tore the teacher a new one.

  10. Henry says:

    My former employer actually educated us that offering to help a pregnant employee carry something heavy would be viewed as gender discrimination, so we were supposed to let them flail until they asked for help (many of them being too scared to ask, because then they might be viewed as less productive). I never enjoyed creating so much potential liability over a 3 month period carrying 40 lb boxes for one of my co-workers as I did back then. Glad to see this law coming along and putting a stop to this nonsense. If people spent the energy they wasted on this crap actually working together and acting like fricking human beings we wouldn’t even need this law.

    • elena says:

      This is a pernicious concept that creeps into a lot of justifications for discrimination: men can’t get pregnant, so any accomodation or consideration for pregnant women is discrimination. It’s some twisty logic I can’t wrap my head around, but I know it’s bad for women.

      • thefish says:

        Of course, its discrimination to assume that a pregnant employee is automatically going to be less able. … Assuming that women are less capable is at the root of a LOT of discrimination.

      • EG says:

        It’s a good thing, then, that being a woman isn’t synonymous with being pregnant, isn’t it?

      • Emolee says:

        And also, no one is assuming that a pregnant person would necessarily need an accommodation. We just think the accommodation should be available if it is needed. Pregnancies differ.

      • Alara Rogers says:

        It would be discrimination to assume that a pregnant person is less able, but asking a person if they can handle a task or will they need some help should never be considered discrimination.

        I worked in a factory that made mainframe controllers. I couldn’t continue to work in the group I was first assigned to, the group that put doors on the controllers after they were built, not because I am female but because I am 5’0″ and the controllers were 6 feet tall, and I did not have the upper body strength to operate a power tool over my head. A man who is 5’0″ might have had such upper body strength, and a different woman who is 5’0″ might have had such upper body strength, but it is reasonable to assume that most 5’0″ adults are women and most don’t have the requisite upper body strength to safely and accurately operate power screwdrivers above their head all day long. So if the employee is 5’0″, most likely she is female, and most likely she can’t do that particular job… but it wasn’t discrimination to move me to a different job, even though I did not request accomodation, because it was based on my *specific* capabilities, not my assumed capabilities as a woman.

        Given that pregnancy is a medical condition it is probably ok to say that flat out, unless the pregnant employee advises you that she *can* do it, you should take from her duties that require her to repeatedly lift things that are over 40 lbs deadweight, since “don’t do that” is standard medical advice for pregnant people, and assign her different duties for the duration… just like, unless the employee who broke his leg advises you otherwise, it is reasonable to take from him duties that involve carrying objects bulky enough that he needs two hands, if he is using a crutch to walk. For other duties, such as 10-hour shifts, lots of standing, going up and down stairs a lot, carrying weights less than 40 lbs… it would be discriminatory to assume the pregnant person certainly cannot do the job, but it would be entirely reasonable to consult the pregnant person to ask if these duties are within her capabilities.

  11. Angie unduplicated says:

    AnnR-Attagirl. Covered this in petition to Saxby Chambliss. Reasonable accommodations to pregnant women are also reasonable accommodations to anyone on disability who wants to mainstream back into the workforce, and many (chairs and a water bottle) are reasonable for many workers who don’t have them. No reason exists for cashiers and machine operators not to have stools if they request them. Elder workers often have conditions which require a small amount of sit time, or limitations on weights.
    Ergonomic work stations and humane conditions are one or two steps ahead on the continuum. When pregnant women get their needs met, an aging working class population who cannot afford to retire should be next. Do we have to call the Humane Society on our employers and demand humane working conditions for our mammalian coworkers?

    • wanttobeanon says:

      No reason exists for cashiers and machine operators not to have stools if they request them.

      Mmmmph. No reason except that the corporation wants you the cashier to present as incredibly energetic and mobile at a moment’s notice and ready to help. I remember a cashier at a big chain toy store I worked at being scolded by the store director for leaning down and against the counter in between customers. She said something like she was tired. The store director was like, “You’re not allowed to be tired!” It was joking, but… not. All she was doing was bending to rest her upper body for a minute. A stool, now… can you imagine how lazy the cashiers would look lounging on stools? They probably wouldn’t even sit up straight!

      While I was working there I got a doctor’s note to be allowed to keep water with me while on the job. I presented it as a non-negotiable, and they liked me there, so even though I got sighed at, they let me have a bottle of water that I sipped discreetly. But they don’t want cashiers drinking at the registers, because then the cashiers will need more bathroom breaks, which because the store is constantly understaffed, means the manager has to get on a register for three minutes, and managers hate working the registers. Everyone seemed to hate working the registers, and preferred a floor job helping guests, because working the registers meant being tied to them for your entire shift, ie, you can’t choose your break time, you have to call someone for backup if you need the bathroom, you can’t just walk away to get a drink, etc.

      Plus, and this is only my intuition, not official company policy, but I have the feeling that it’s like… every second you spend drinking a sip of water is a moment of focusing on yourself and your own needs, which, omigod, SO not what you are supposed to be doing! You are supposed to be focusing on the customers and keeping the front end neat and making the store more fun every second! There’s a selflessness they expect that extends into basic human needs like thirst. They don’t care about you. They care about the company image and having enough warm bodies, there for cheap, to do the work they don’t want to do.

      Retail (at least in my experience of it) is so fucked up.

    • Ann R says:

      I agree there is no reason a worker should not be able to sit on a stool or in a chair if they need to. This is one reason I like to shop at the grocery store chain Aldi. At my local store ( and I assume the rest of the chain), the cashiers sit in a bar height stool while ringing up your groceries. Never once have I felt like they wouldn’t offer help if I needed it simply because they were sitting on a stool. I would much rather shop at a store with workers who are treated kindly and with dignity than a store with people who must remain unnaturally upbeat for sake of some sort of corporate appearance.

  12. rox says:

    You know, I remember being pregnant at work and knowing I was going to have 6 weeks with my child before I had to go back to work full time or lose my job.

    It’s a horrific position to be in (especially as I was pregnant as a result of sexual abuse and it’s not like a position I had jumped to put myself into).

    I desperately wish there were better ways for moms that want to spend time with their children to get part time options, longer periods of paid time off, and longer periods of unpaid leave they could use but still have the ability to return.

    I feel like if we made better maternity supports from the government end (i.e. paid time off didn’t necessarily get supplied purely from employers) maybe it would be more possible to make these things happen. I have heard of countries where 6 months paid is common and up to two years unpaid leave is possible. Just… me here, dreamin the dream.

    For single moms, the fact that there is no way to have a job schedule that matches the school system is also a problem. We’ve remedied this by putting kids in school and summer care full time like their parents, but for many parents who want out of this it feels like you’re just totally trapped with no way to ever let your child have a relaxed summer at hope or family time in the afternoons when you’re not exhausted and tired and trying to do chores and make dinner.

    I’m really glad proposals like this arehappening … no I’m ecstatic… just that the conversations are happening and action steps…its just… really good.

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