A look at the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act

Now a law, what does it mean for workers and employers?

Photo: MaxRiesgo/iStockphoto

The path for the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act to become law was a long one.

Nonetheless, the 10-year wait to guarantee safety and health protections for women who want – and, in many cases, need – to work during pregnancy has come to an end.

“The passage of this act really just provides basic decency for pregnant workers,” AFL-CIO safety and health specialist M.K. Fletcher said.

Under the law – set to go into effect June 27 – all employers with at least 15 employees will be required to extend to pregnant workers “reasonable accommodations.” These can include a chair or stool to sit on, additional bathroom breaks, and limits on how much they can lift. (See “What’s a ‘reasonable accommodation’?” on p. 34 for more.)

Fatima Goss Graves, president and CEO of the National Women’s Law Center, calls the legislation’s passing “a historic victory.”

She continued: “Before this legislation, too often, when a pregnant worker needed a minor change in workplace duties or policies because of pregnancy, she was forced to take unpaid leave or be pushed out of work entirely.”

Associate Editor Barry Bottino discusses this article on the March 2023 episode of Safety+Health's “On the Safe Side” podcast.

Closing a loophole

The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act closes a loophole in the federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978, which required employers to provide accommodations for workers only to the extent that their work restrictions caused them to be “disabled” according to the meaning within the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.

“Pregnant women should not fear losing their jobs,” said Marjorie Del Toro, CEO of the California-based environmental health and safety compliance group ehs International and the OSHA Alliance co-chair for the National Association of Women in Construction. “Losing a job or medical coverage can be devastating.”

The PWFA was included as an amendment in the fiscal year 2023 federal appropriations bill. After the Senate approved the amendment by a 73-24 margin, President Joe Biden signed the appropriations bill into law on Dec. 29.

The long path

Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA) first introduced the legislation in the Senate in September 2012 – eventually proposing the bill five more times over the next decade.

“I fought for 10 years to pass the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act because pregnancy should never be a barrier for women who want to stay in the workplace,” Casey said. “When the law goes into effect this year, that means pregnant workers will have the right to commonsense protections that make it possible for them to work while maintaining a healthy pregnancy – and their employers have a duty to provide them.”

The House passed its version of the bill (H.R. 1065), introduced by Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), on May 14, 2021, with a 315-101 vote. That was the second time the chamber approved the bill in an eight-month period.

The Senate version of the bill (S. 1486), meanwhile, stalled despite backing from Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-LA), a physician who co-sponsored the legislation with Casey.

During a debate on the Senate floor in January, Cassidy told his colleagues: “I think even those who oppose would agree that we need to have a safe environment for pregnant women and their unborn children in the workplace. I would say that this bill is pro-family, pro-mother, pro-baby, pro-employer and pro-economy.”

What should workers know?

The biggest takeaway for pregnant workers? Knowing that they can ask for accommodations without fear of retaliation from their employer.

“It’s all pretty easy,” Fletcher said. “There are a lot of tasks that need to be done in the workplace. Just thinking a little smartly about, ‘Oh, who can do that task? Can that task be done seated? Can we shift to lifting lighter things or have help when lifting things?’”

Additional concerns for pregnant workers may involve the use of respirators and potential exposures to harmful chemicals.

In such cases, Fletcher said a medical evaluation might be needed because a worker’s health may change during or after pregnancy. “They may need a different respirator or may not be able to wear one of the same type they’ve been provided.”

Employers should discuss with pregnant workers the types of chemicals used in the workplace and any impacts they could have.

“A lot of reproductive hazards pose a risk early in pregnancy, when the development of all the organs are happening really rapidly,” said Fletcher, who advises pregnant workers to ask their physician about what they should know about any chemicals they might be exposed to on the job.

According to various online reports, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has been tasked with issuing regulations that include examples of reasonable accommodations.

Co-workers can offer an assist

The employer and the pregnant worker can help ensure reasonable accommodations are met, but so can their colleagues.

“It’s important for co-workers to make sure their [pregnant] colleagues know that they do have these protections available,” Fletcher said.

Talking about and sharing information on the new law, including from websites and printed materials, can help promote awareness in the workplace.

“If you are aware of this new law as a co-worker, then let the pregnant worker know,” Del Toro said. “Be vigilant and ask questions. ‘Are you OK? Do you need assistance or a stool to sit on?’”

Talk to your employer

If a pregnant worker is hesitant to ask for accommodations, Del Toro has this advice: Take a courteous path into a conversation about the new law.

“People are still learning about it,” she said. “Go in and politely say, ‘I really need accommodations.’ Send them an email with a link to H.R. 1065 and say, ‘Respectfully, here are my rights.’”

What’s a ‘reasonable accommodation’?

The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act requires employers with at least 15 employees to provide pregnant workers with “reasonable accommodations” on the job. According to various online reports, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has been tasked with issuing regulations that include examples of reasonable accommodations. These could include:

  • More frequent or longer bathroom breaks
  • A water bottle at a workstation
  • A chair or stool to sit on during work tasks
  • Periodic rest breaks
  • Light duty
  • Assistance with manual labor
  • Lifting limitations
  • Temporary reassignment to a less strenuous or hazardous job
  • Acquisition or modification of equipment
  • Assignment to a vacant position
  • Time off to recover from conditions related to childbirth
  • Work-from-home options

Source: Multiple interviews, online reports

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