Giving pregnant women the same protections at work as disabled people might help save many jobs, but at what price?
New York is the latest state to consider a law that requires employers to provide “reasonable accommodations” for pregnant workers as long as doing so doesn’t unduly burden the company. If you’re shocked that pregnant women don’t already have the right to minor, short-term changes in their duties or work environments, such as using a footstool or avoiding heavy lifting, you’re not alone.
“It is unconscionable that, nearly 35 years after passage of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978, women are still being forced to leave jobs [and] being denied basic and reasonable accommodations that would allow them to continue to work during pregnancy,” U.S. Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., said in a statement earlier this year. To address this issue, Nadler and 60 co-sponsors introduced the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (PWFA) in the House of Representatives in May. The same bill was introduced in the Senate in September.
Pregnant women should already have such protections under a 2008 amendment to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), says Jeannette Cox, a law professor at the University of Dayton in Ohio. “The ADA now covers short-term situations that are quite comparable to pregnancy, such as allowing a heavy-lifting restriction following back surgery,” Cox says.
However, many women bristle at the idea of characterizing pregnancy as a disability. “ ‘We are not disabled,’ is what we hear,” says New York City attorney Dina Bakst, founder of A Better Balance: The Work and Family Legal Center.
KNOW YOUR RIGHTS
This reluctance has led to pregnant workers having less legal standing than disabled workers with similar limitations, Cox explains. If your pregnancy causes a “medically recognized impairment,” such as gestational diabetes, your workplace rights are more secure, she says: “If you can get a doctor to put a label on you, you should be covered under the ADA.” But you may not be covered if, for example, you request more frequent bathroom breaks or a transfer to less hazardous duty.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) recently held a hearing on the persistence of pregnancy discrimination and may issue new guidelines to employers. “But there’s still no guarantee that all pregnant women can get what they need to stay healthy and on the job under existing law as it’s been interpreted by the courts,” Bakst says.
HOW DOES YOUR STATE RATE?
As of 2010, seven states (California, Connecticut, Illinois, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota and New Hampshire) require certain private employers to provide at least some accommodations for pregnant workers. Alaska and Texas require certain public employers to do so.
Nervous about sharing the news about your pregnancy at work? Check out our Working Woman's Guide to Pregnancy, which will guide you through the common scenarios you'll need to tackle as you navigate the next nine months on the job.
— Kim Schworm Acosta