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Valerie Young's picture

Peggy Young (no relation) had been a UPS employee for about a decade when she got pregnant.  Like most of us, she assumed there'd be no problem at work.  Her pregnancy was in no way unusual.  Everybody knew you couldn't discriminate against pregnant workers.  We had the protection of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, which had been the law in the US for 35  years.  It was the 21st century, for crying out loud.  Surely we'd evolved.  Right?

WRONG!  Her employer insisted she produce a note from her doctor listing her physical restrictions.  She complied, with a note limiting her lifting to no more than 20 pounds while she was pregnant, something that rarely occurred anyway.  Refusing to allow her a light duty status, she was told not to return to work until after the baby was born.   Pregnant women, she was told, were just too much of a liability to have in the workplace.  Forced off the job for the remaining two trimesters of her pregnancy, she lost her income, and then her health insurance.  Her joy and happy anticipation turned to frustration, anger, and worry.  And one very expensive delivery.

That's the scary story that got me schlepping around Capitol Hill right before Halloween, asking US Senators to pass the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (#PWFA).  Pregnant women are NOT a liability at work.  They can do their jobs, and they can earn their income.  Forcing a woman out of a job or on to unpaid leave solely because she is pregnant is unfair, discriminatory, and flat out wrong.  It's also illegal, but too few employers understand that.  That's why I worked with members from the National Women's Law Center, the National Partnership for Women & Families, and the ACLU to make the case in favor of the PWFA.

The bill makes clear that pregnant workers are entitled to precisely the same sort of reasonable accommodations available to all workers under the Americans with Disabilities Act.  For example, an employee with a bad back,  high blood pressure, or a leg injury has a legal right to sit on a stool, stay off a ladder, or not lift heavy objects until healed.  Yet pregnant women are being refused permission to carry a water bottle with them, take extra bathroom breaks, or sit down periodically, accommodations no less reasonable than those offered to workers with some sort of disability.  Some mothers-to-be find themselves fainting from dehydration, enduring discomfort, sometimes risking their own health or that of the pregnancy.  In the worst case scenario, a miscarriage could occur.

Such an outcome is totally unacceptable when the accommodations are low cost, or no cost at all.  Allowing a pregnant worker access to water or to sit at a cash register does not place an undue burden on the employer.   Also, the need only lasts for a matter of months, until the baby is born.  If this bill is passed, employers can be in no doubt how pregnant workers are to be treated, and mothers-to-be at work know exactly what changes they can make to keep themselves safe and healthy during pregnancy while productive on the job.

The concern we heard most often in the marbled halls of power - wouldn't this bill cause a lot of litigation?  That was one question we could answer with total confidence, because similar bills protecting pregnant workers against firing or demotion have been passed in California, Maryland, and most recently in New York City.  California passed its law 10 years ago, and litigation about pregnancy in the employment context actually decreased while continuing to climb in other states.  It seems pretty clear that good laws make for good workplaces, and the expense of litigation to employers is avoided, as is the stress of unfair and unexpected loss of employent to the pregnant worker.

This is an easy fix, people.  Let's get on it - you can use this handly link from the National Women's Law Center to send a message to your legislators telling them to co-sponsor and then pass this bill.  Pregnant women are supporting themselves, and getting ready to provide for their children.  In a country with no paid maternity leave, no paid sick days, inadequate child care and uncertain access to health care, they shouldn't face the unnecessary and unlawful loss of their paycheck at this critical moment.

'Til next time,

Your (Wo)Man in Washington

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