The end of pregnancy brings an onslaught of challenges for working parents-to-be. These include the physical pain of carrying another human, achy joints, a stretching belly and a cramping back. Then, there’s the emotional toll and sheer exhaustion that comes with pregnancy, especially in the third trimester.
Yet, there is little protection for a pregnant person’s rights at work in existing American laws. Often, this leaves pregnant people who need frequent breaks or relief from 100-degree weather without options. If they don’t comply, they might risk losing their jobs.
About the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act
The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act would change this by providing pregnant workers with more job protections—if the U.S. Congress passes it by Dec. 31. The bill, which has bipartisan support, passed the House in May 2021. It has since stalled, waiting for Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to bring it to the floor for an official vote. Time is ticking: Advocates believe if Congress doesn’t enact the bill this month, a few key House Republicans will oppose it over lack of religious exemptions, according to a Politico report.
Parents Together is a national family advocacy group working to organize people impacted by pregnancy challenges at work. For example, Erika Lightner, a Pennsylvania mother of four children, was a food distributor warehouse picker.
“I had a lot of medical issues while I was pregnant, and they were not happy to work with me,” Lightner says. “I did lose my job because I wasn’t allowed to have a water bottle with me at all times during my pregnancy while working during COVID and having a high-risk pregnancy.” Due to her high-risk pregnancy, she couldn’t drink from the shared water cooler unless it was sanitized daily. She couldn’t afford a lawyer to fight the case but was able to get unemployment.
Workers across the country who have faced unreasonable expectations at work, even at the expense of their health, are speaking out to advocacy groups, like Lightner, to push for the bill to pass.
Pregnant Workers Fairness Act Benefits
Sarah Manasrah, a Brooklyn, New York based community organizer, advocate, writer, birth worker and mother of two children under age 4, wants the bill to gain more traction. “It’s absolutely unacceptable that the Senate isn’t prioritizing a vote on the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act,” she says. “The PWFA would protect workers from discrimination based on requests for simple, but critical, temporary changes so they can work during their pregnancies and after having kids—things like a chair or stool to sit in, keeping a water bottle nearby, extra bathroom breaks or relief from heavy lifting.” She believes the law would protect employees from mistreatment, demotions and firing and retaliation at work.
The bill states it to be unlawful for employers to:
- Fail to make accommodations for known limitations unless it would impose an undue hardship on business operations.
- Require the employer to give a reasonable accommodation arrived at through an interactive process.
- Deny employment opportunities based on the accommodation.
- Require paid or unpaid leave if an accommodation could be provided.
- Take adverse action against the employee for using the accommodation.
A Look at Current Work Expectations
For some parents—especially those without an official pregnancy complication—even the schedule they are supposed to work until the end of their pregnancy can be daunting and feel undoable. Anita Patel, M.D., a pediatric ICU physician, struggled with balancing her passion for her work and taking care of herself during pregnancy. She gave birth to her second child this month.
“I think about this a lot. On one hand, I’ll be working up until the second I deliver,” she said in an interview before giving birth. “I certainly don’t like anyone telling me I CAN’T do something. But, oddly, there is this dichotomy as well of not wanting to be scheduled for a seven-day stretch of service at 36 weeks. So, it’s sort of a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t situation.” She adds that pregnant people need the flexibility to pivot, which she knows well. She ended up in the labor and delivery unit four times in the last few weeks of her recent pregnancy. “I did so much ICU service the past month when it could have been easily stretched over a longer period of time. But… it wasn’t taken into consideration,” she says.
Long working hours have been associated with poor pregnancy outcomes. These include increased risk of miscarriage and preterm labor, as well as hypertensive disorders, vacuum or forceps delivery and small-for-gestational-age babies, one study shows.
Protecting Parents-to-Be During Pregnancy
Manasrah echoes Patel’s sentiment, calling it egregious that, in 2022, a pregnant or postpartum worker has to choose between their job security and their health. According to A Better Balance, a nonprofit organization that uses the law to advance justice for workers, some states are taking matters into their own hands. Many states are passing their own protection measures. However, in a 2021 report, the organization argued that protection shouldn’t depend on where someone lives.
The U.S. is the only industrialized country that does not guarantee paid maternity leave rights. Pregnant workers often work as long as they can to provide financial support to their families ahead of unpaid leaves, sometimes risking their health. A lack of accommodations can lead them to searching for another job in the middle, or at the end, of pregnancy. A Better Balance’s report also indicates that nearly two-thirds of women are the primary breadwinners or co-breadwinners for their family. In addition, many can’t afford to pursue legal action if they do face pregnancy-related discrimination. So, improved protections are a must.
“Losing income with a baby on the way is disastrous for parents,” Manasrah says. “But there is a solution: this bill.”
Photo by Milan Ilic Photographer/Shutterstock
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