Protecting pregnant workers and their families

Pregnancy discrimination. It’s a topic so important that the president recently called on Congress to pass the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act and the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear Peggy Young v. United Parcel Service, Inc., a case involving an employee who says the shipping company discriminated against her because she was pregnant. And just last month, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which enforces the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, clarified its guidelines—albeit for the first time in more than 30 years.

But residents of Illinois won’t be waiting for either Congress or the Supreme Court to act. The so-called pregnancy fairness bill was recently passed by the Illinois General Assembly and is set to go into effect in January. It’s currently awaiting Gov. Pat Quinn’s signature.

Under the new law, it is considered a civil rights violation if an employer refuses to grant a pregnant woman a reasonable request for any temporary adjustments—such as water breaks, more bathroom breaks or a stool to sit on—to continue to do her job and have a healthy pregnancy.

This measure of protection is crucial because many families depend on the support of women to survive.  In fact, according to the U.S. Census, women are half of the workforce. Three-quarters of women entering the workforce will become pregnant during their careers, and two-thirds of American women work during their pregnancies.  

Until recently, many women who have been denied reasonable accommodations have continued to work anyway, risking damage to themselves or their babies after, for example, lifting heavy objects. Others have been fired for asking.  Many such stories are documented in “It Shouldn’t Be a Heavy Lift: Fair Treatment for Pregnant Workers” by National Women’s Law Center and A Better Balance. Leaving the workforce means lost wages, periods of unemployment     and lost employment opportunities and job benefits such as seniority, all of which have lifelong repercussions for women’s economic security and the advancement and well-being of their families.

 Women such as a pregnant former warehouse worker in Chicago are all too aware that pregnant workers still face discrimination in the workplace.  She recently recounted her story to me: “I was pregnant at my job and my supervisor told me ‘Quit your job or lose your baby.’ I know first-hand how important this new law is for pregnant workers.”

The requirement for reasonable accommodation for pregnancy is similar to rules that allow workers with a disability to stay on the job.  In pregnancy, the changes, in most cases, will be temporary and cost little or nothing. And by making accommodations, companies will improve recruitment and retention of workers, as well as increase employee commitment.

Illinois joins six other states with laws that provide accommodations to pregnant workers, a move that should pave the way for a national standard. The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, introduced in Congress last year, would provide the clear and unambiguous rules necessary to require employers to provide reasonable accommodations to pregnant workers who need them.  The act would apply the same standard that applies to workers with disabilities so it would be easy for employers to administer.

What seems so basic would open a world of opportunity to workers who want to stay healthy, remain employed and contribute to the economy and their families’ well-being.  Illinois may not have been first, but it can be an important part in a societal change that will benefit all.

Melissa Josephs is Director of Equal Opportunity Policy for Women Employed in Chicago and is a Public Voices Fellow of The OpEd Project.

[Photo: Expectant mother/Shutterstock]

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