Cassie Miller, Pennsylvania Capital-Star
December 22, 2023
On Dec. 27, 2022, Congress passed a bill decades in the making to establish federal protections for pregnant workers.
Known as the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, the landmark legislation was signed into law by President Joe Biden in December 2022 and officially took effect on June 27, 2023.
The PWFA was not a swift-moving piece of legislation and required bipartisan support, taking more than a decade to finally become law. But its potential impact can’t be understated; the woman whose op-ed inspired the first action toward the law’s eventual passage called it a “groundbreaking civil rights law.” And earlier this year, one Pennsylvania lawmaker announced she plans to reintroduce state legislation to build on the PWFA’s protections, and close a loophole in state law.
The Act filled a gap in federal legal protections for pregnant and nursing workers that were not covered under existing laws, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, which is part of the Civil Rights Act.
“One year ago, Congress passed the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (PWFA), a groundbreaking civil rights law that guarantees long overdue dignity, fairness, and equality for moms and moms-to-be,” Dina Bakst, Co-Founder and Co-President of A Better Balance, a national nonprofit focused on advocacy for workers, said of the legislation. “The passage of the PWFA, as well as the PUMP for Nursing Mothers Act, which also passed one year ago, marked a momentous victory for gender, racial, and economic justice.”
The PWFA requires public and private sector employers with 15 or more employees to grant pregnant workers “reasonable accommodation” for limitations related to their pregnancy, such as permission to sit or stand while performing their job duties and altered break or shift schedules, unless it would pose an undue hardship for the employer.
U.S. Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.), who worked with lawmakers and advocates for more than a decade to pass the PWFA, said the act is a “common sense” bill that makes maintaining a healthy pregnancy while working possible.
“Now that the law is in place, pregnant workers across Pennsylvania and the nation can no longer be denied the reasonable accommodations they need to continue working safely,” Casey told the Capital-Star.
But getting the legislation passed was no easy task.
In 2012, Bakst wrote an op-ed in The New York Times discussing the hurdles pregnant workers face when they need reasonable accommodations, including being “pushed out” of their jobs.
“No pregnant woman in this country should have to choose between her job and a healthy pregnancy,” Bakst wrote then.
Shortly after the op-ed ran, Bakst was contacted by U.S. Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) who, with the help of Bakst and other advocates, wanted to draft legislation to address pregnancy discrimination against workers and allow for reasonable accommodations in the workplace.
Casey, citing cases of reasonable accommodations being denied by employers in Pennsylvania, such as additional bathroom breaks, and uniform changes, soon introduced the newly drafted legislation in the Senate.
“All too often pregnant workers are being denied these reasonable accommodations,” Casey said. “There’s no need for this to happen.”
During a visit to Harrisburg in July, Casey said he was “relieved” to see the bill had finally been enacted.
“This was something that involved various groups coming together to find a solution and accomplish something that should have been done 10 years ago,” Casey told reporters.
PWFA in Pa.?
Importantly, the federal PWFA does not preempt state laws that provide the same or greater protections to workers, meaning states, such as Pennsylvania, are free to expand protections as they choose.
Data from the U.S. Department of Labor shows that dozens of states have already enacted their own versions, some of which cover topics such as pregnancy discrimination and accommodation, as well as workplace breastfeeding rights.
In July, state Sen. Amanda Cappelletti (D-Montgomery) announced that she would reintroduce legislation to build on the protections in the PWFA and close a legal loophole in Pennsylvania.
“I wanted to continue to fight for this, because, we as a society, regularly talk about how important families are, about how we have to take care of one another, and children are so special, and it’s such a blessing to be a parent. And that’s the rhetoric you hear. But, our actions don’t match up,” Cappelletti told the Capital-Star. “I want to be in a space and be that kind of person, where my actions align with the things that I’m saying.”
The legislation, SB 995, would also require employers to make reasonable accommodations for pregnant workers, with its language closely mirroring that of the federal legislation.
Cappelletti’s legislation also has the support of advocates outside of Harrisburg, including the Women’s Law Project, a Philadelphia-based legal advocacy group that can provide legal services to pregnant workers experiencing workplace discrimination.
“The Women’s Law Project is fighting for the state version of this Pregnant Workers Fairness Act,” Sophia Elliot, staff attorney at WLP, said. “It only provides for reasonable accommodations, it would not impose a burden on employers, and if anything, I think, really benefits them in being able to retain their talent and supports a robust labor force. So, I think it’s a win-win. It’s a win for pregnant workers and our families, and it’s also a win for employers.”
The bill was referred to the Senate Labor & Industry Committee earlier this month but did not see a vote before the Senate recessed until 2024.
While the PWFA took effect in late June, officials at the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission are still finalizing the regulation’s language after the end of a public comment period earlier this year.
Advocates and policymakers say they expect to see the regulation in its final form on or around Dec. 29, when Biden signed the bill into law a year prior.
“For too long, workers with limitations stemming from pregnancy, childbirth and related medical conditions, disproportionately women of color in low-wage, physically-demanding, and male-dominated jobs, have been denied the reasonable accommodations they need to protect their health and keep their jobs,” Bakst said. “Now, the law is squarely on their side.”
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