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National News

Pregnant Workers Fairness Act blocked in Texas as unconstitutional

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Kim Lyons, Pennsylvania Capital-Star
February 28, 2024

A federal judge in Texas this week dealt a blow to a landmark piece of legislation protecting pregnant workers, ruling that there was no quorum in the U.S. House when the law passed, making it unenforceable.

The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, which requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for pregnant workers, was part of a $1.7 trillion spending package that Congress passed in late 2022. U.S. Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.), first introduced the bill in 2012, and worked for more than a decade to get it passed.

“Texas: Won’t let you have an abortion but also won’t do anything to help you have a safe and healthy pregnancy,” Casey said in a statement to the Capital-Star on Wednesday. “This is Republican governance at its finest and downright insulting to women in Texas and beyond who want and need to continue working safely through pregnancy.”

Last February, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton sued the Biden administration arguing that since members of Congress were allowed to vote by proxy for the spending package, there were not enough members physically present to form the quorum required in the Constitution. 

Then-Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi regularly allowed House members to vote by proxy during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Paxton’s lawsuit sought to block two provisions of the package that he argued directly affected Texas: the PWFA and a $20 million  pilot program under the Department of Homeland Security for case management and other services for immigrants enrolled in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Alternatives to Detention programs.

U.S. District Judge James Wesley Hendrix, who was appointed by former president Donald Trump, agreed with Paxton’s argument, but said the scope of his ruling was “limited,” and did not block the entire spending law.

“Supreme Court precedent has long held that the Quorum Clause requires presence, and the Clause’s text distinguishes those absent members from the quorum and provides a mechanism for obtaining a physical quorum by compelling absent members to attend,” he wrote in his ruling.

Hendrix found Texas lacked standing to challenge the immigration pilot program. He issued an injunction, which only applies to employees of the state of Texas, that bars enforcement of the PWFA.

The decision gives the federal government a week to appeal. Any appeal would go to the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, widely considered the most conservative court in the country. 

University of Pittsburgh School of Law Associate Professor Greer Donley told the Capital-Star that the narrow scope of Hendrix’s ruling limited it for the time being. But if it’s upheld on appeal, under the legal principle of persuasive authority, another judge could read the case and follow the Texas opinion.

“But that would have to be pursued as its own litigation,” she noted. 

If the appeals court were to uphold the Texas judge’s opinion, it would likely invite further lawsuits, Donley added.

 “And obviously, the majority of COVID was during President Biden’s administration, when Democrats had power, so it’s going to heavily skew the types of challenges that could be brought under this theory,” she said. “If it were to be upheld, then certainly it would provide 100% a roadmap to invalidate literally any legislation that was passed where proxies were used and a quorum was not available.”

The PWFA 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, part of the Civil Rights Act. 

It 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.

Workers’ advocacy organizations hailed it as a groundbreaking civil rights law.

But Paxton argued in his lawsuit that the cost to respond to complaints under the PWFA would be too burdensome, suggesting he expected Texas to face a considerable. 

“As a result of these new obligations, Texas and its agencies must devote time and expenses to understanding these legal requirements, developing new policies and training, providing accommodations, and responding to EEOC charges and resulting litigation,” he wrote.

Pennsylvania Capital-Star is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Pennsylvania Capital-Star maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Kim Lyons for questions: info@penncapital-star.com. Follow Pennsylvania Capital-Star on Facebook and Twitter.

This article is republished from Pennsylvania Capital-Star under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.