Speaking of Women's Rights: Standing (or Sitting!) with Pregnant Workers

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Standing (or Sitting!)
with Pregnant Workers

By Heidi Garcia

Being pregnant is hard. You’re tired all the time and are probably worried about what will happen next, constantly asking yourself things like: 
  • How much leave can I afford to take and will it be enough?
  • Will my partner have sufficient time off to bond with the baby?
  • How am I going to find and pay for childcare that I like?
  • What will my leave and new responsibilities mean for my career progression?
  • How am I going to pay for everything my child needs for the next 18 (or more) years?
Add to that the feeling that you can’t meet your employer’s expectations because you’re pregnant, and there's no question that pregnancy can be a very stressful time.

The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (PWFA) would help address this stress and ensure healthy pregnancies by requiring employers to make reasonable accommodations—much like they are already required to do for people with disabilities—for pregnant women. In most situations, being pregnant doesn’t mean that the woman can’t do her job. It just means that she can’t do it in precisely the way non-pregnant employees could. For example, she may need to sit down during her shift, alter a uniform, carry a water bottle with her, or get assistance lifting heavy objects. Around the country, pregnant women have been fired for requesting these kinds of accommodations, even when the affected activity was not a regular part of the woman’s job.

Sadly, these things continue to happen despite existing protections such as the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978, and despite the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision in Young v. UPS. The Court held in Young that when an employer accommodates workers who are similar to pregnant workers in their ability to work, it cannot refuse to accommodate pregnant workers who need accommodations simply because it “is more expensive or less convenient” to accommodate pregnant women too. But the Young test isn’t very straight-forward, and that’s where the PWFA comes in: by taking the familiar framework from disability law that employers and courts are accustomed to applying—"reasonable accommodation"—and applying the concept to pregnant women. Because while being pregnant isn’t a disability per se, it can bring challenges and limitations. 

Legislation protecting pregnant workers will help level the playing field and ensure equal employment opportunities for more women. Women make up roughly half of all workers in the U.S., and more than 40% of mothers are the sole or primary breadwinners in their households. Ensuring that women who are physically able to work can continue to do so is in the best interest not only of the woman and her growing family, but also her employer (who will ultimately save money by not having to hire and train a new employee) and society as a whole.

Heidi Garcia, a member of the Legal Voice Board of Directors, is expecting her first child in early December. Although she’s grateful that her job doesn’t require heavy lifting or being on her feet all day, the amount of sleep she suddenly requires is often at odds with the expectations put on her at work.

Photo courtesy of hugrakka.