Bearing a child while simultaneously working to provide for oneself and a growing family is no easy task for a pregnant woman. As they prepare to bring a baby into the world and begin to make some of the most important decisions when it comes to starting a family, these women shouldn’t also fear workplace discrimination or work-related tasks that could pose potential health risks to their pregnancy.
Thanks to a bipartisan gang of lawmakers, expecting mothers’ jobs just got a little more secure. The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (PWFA), which was tacked onto the omnibus bill at the end of the last Congress, requires most employers to grant temporary and reasonable accommodations for expecting mothers. Before the PWFA, an employer’s legal obligation to approve accommodations for pregnant workers was governed by an overly complicated patchwork of bureaucratic red tape made up of varying state protections and a wildly vague Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA).
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For years, a lack of legal clarity too often left women with the burden of bargaining for accommodations at work while having limited recourse if their employer denied their request.
Since the PDA was enacted 40 years ago, charges of pregnancy discrimination have persisted, with over 15,000 filed between 2015 and 2019. These bold women who choose to file charges face an impossible battle, with experts estimating that pregnant workers lose 29 out of 43 of their pregnancy accommodation cases because of the legal hoops they have to jump through to prove discrimination.
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A lack of protections and a burdensome legal process slowly set the standard that pregnancy was a barrier for working women, and the economic consequences of discriminatory treatment have cascaded from there. Women are the primary or co-breadwinners in almost two-thirds of families, and their salaries are needed to make ends meet.
Nearly one in four mothers, however, have considered leaving their job out of fear of discrimination during pregnancy or due to a lack of reasonable accommodations. With more than 5 million women leaving the workforce in 2020, gaps in the law that deter women hoping to start families from continuing to work are working against our efforts to ameliorate the American workforce and improve the economy.
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There’s been support for the proposals in the PWFA for years, with women and health groups sounding the alarm for reform. Even the U.S. Chamber of Commerce applauded this legislation, explaining that ensuring that expectant mothers have every option to stay active in the workplace is good for women, families and businesses. Particularly as employers “face great uncertainty about whether, and how, they are required to accommodate pregnant workers.”
Although this bill could have been passed long ago, lawmakers, including Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC), was ultimately able to ensure the PWFA was included in the omnibus, showing that bipartisan solutions to important legislative questions can be achieved.
Thanks to the PWFA, working women are now guaranteed reasonable accommodations, such as additional bathroom breaks, light duty, or a stool to sit on if a worker stands all day. Most importantly, the bill also prohibits denying employment opportunities to women based on their need for reasonable accommodation.
Sen. Tillis also ensured that the bill included key provisions which he said would protect against use of the PWFA to compel employers to accommodate leave “to obtain abortions on demand under the guise of pregnancy-related conditions.” With these provisions in place, the law remains sharply focused on its intent: supporting expecting mothers in our workforce.
Working women, especially in frontline jobs, are the backbone of our economy, making up nearly half of the workforce. I’m pleased that lawmakers could finally pass the PWFA and show women in America that they should not face the risk of an unsafe pregnancy to keep food on the table and a roof over their heads.
As we head into a new Congress, I encourage Republican lawmakers to continue championing similar policies that further promote a pro-family agenda.
Renee Ellmers served as a U.S. Congressional Representative for North Carolina from 2011 to 2017.
This article originally appeared on The Fayetteville Observer: Former U.S. Rep. Ellmers: New law will help pregnant women, economy