What do West Virginia and New York City have in common? As someone who spent many years living in each place, I can assure you that the answer is not that much. Which makes it all the more striking that yesterday West Virginia followed the lead of New York City, becoming the most recent in a string of jurisdictions in recent months to strengthen protections for pregnant workers by a unanimous or near unanimous vote.
The West Virginia Pregnant Workers’ Fairness Act, like similar measures passed in New York City, New Jersey and Philadelphia, requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for employees who have limitations in their ability to work arising out of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions, unless these accommodations would pose an undue hardship for employers. While many pregnant workers never need any changes in their jobs, some will need accommodation at some point during pregnancy, especially if they have physically demanding jobs. Too often when a pregnant woman requests a temporary change in workplace duties or policies, such as being allowed to sit instead of stand during a long shift or staying off high ladders for a few months, employers respond by pushing her out of work altogether, at the moment her family can least afford it. The new laws in West Virginia, New York City, New Jersey and Philadelphia provide a clear, unmistakable rule that will ensure that these sorts of reasonable accommodations are available for limitations arising out of pregnancy (just as the law has long required employers to make reasonable accommodations for disability). This is good news for pregnant women and their families.
But the way in which these laws passed—with overwhelming, bipartisan support—may be almost as notable as what they will do. Only one legislator in these four jurisdictions—a single, lonely New Jersey State Senator—voted against these provisions. New York City’s former Independent mayor Michael Bloomberg and New Jersey’s Republican governor Chris Christie signed these measures into law. But while overwhelming support in progressive cities and blue New Jersey is impressive, the unanimous support in West Virginia should make indisputably clear that protecting the rights of pregnant workers isn’t just good policy. It’s powerfully and irresistibly good politics. Polling makes this clear: 91 percent of all voters favor policies ensuring workers won’t be fired or demoted when they become pregnant or take maternity leave. Support for these efforts is as American as mom and apple pie.
So why hasn’t Congress gotten the message yet? The bill that just passed without a peep of opposition in West Virginia is nearly identical to the federal Pregnant Workers Fairness Act. That bill has reasonably healthy support, with 24 cosponsors in the Senate and 121 cosponsors in the House, but so far this support is only from one side of the aisle, and many names are still missing. For example, neither of West Virginia’s senators has announced his support for the bill, nor have its three representatives. West Virginia’s enthusiastic embrace of this policy should help change that. It sends a loud message not just to that state’s congressional delegation, but to senators and representatives across the country that standing up for pregnant workers is a common ground, commonsense measure, which resonates with voters. Fairness for pregnant workers isn’t just a blue state priority. It’s a national priority. And the wave of support for pregnant workers is on its way to Washington. (Pregnant worker via Shutterstock)
In the wake of similar protections recently passed in Philadelphia, Rep. Mark Painter (D-Montgomery) has introduced HB 1892, dubbed the Pennsylvania Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, in the state house.
The bill is one part of a coordinated campaign organized by Pennsylvania’s Women’s Health Caucus, which formed last spring. The caucus’ goal is to re-center women’s health in the arena of public health, rather than politics—a concept lead organizer Sen. Judy Schwank (D-Berks) calls “foreign to the predominant policymakers” in Harrisburg.
If passed, the bill will require that employers make “reasonable accommodations” for employees experiencing limitations due to pregnancy, child birth, or related medical conditions. Reasonable accommodation is defined as “providing a chair, assistance with heavy lifting, access to drinking water, or uncompensated break time” and “temporary job restructuring, part-time or modified work schedules, reassignment to a vacant position, acquisition or modification of equipment or devices.”
Rep. Painter told RH Reality Check that the post-partum disorder is included under related medical conditions.
The freshman lawmaker says he was inspired to introduce this legislation after reading a story about a Wal-Mart employee in Kansas who was fired when, despite her doctor’s orders to stay hydrated, her employer refused to allow her to carry a bottle of water with her as she stocked shelves. Dehydration while pregnant can lead to fainting and even miscarriage.
According to a report published by A Better Balance and the National Women’s Law Center, “Almost nine out of ten (88 percent) first-time mothers who worked while pregnant worked into their last two months of pregnancy in 2006-2008, and more than eight out of ten (82 percent) worked into their last month of pregnancy.”
State and local bills to protect pregnant employees are necessary to address discrimination not covered by the 1978 Pregnancy Discrimination Act. As RH Reality Check contributor Sheila Bapat wrote last year, “the law has been interpreted so narrowly by federal courts that it actually does not protect pregnant women who are fired, forced to take leave, or quit when they require temporary, often minor accommodations.”
In response, bills providing various levels of protection have been passed in New York City, New Jersey, Alaska, California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Louisiana, Maryland, and Texas, according to the National Women’s Law Center.
Meanwhile, a federal Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (PWFA), sponsored by Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA) and Rep. Jerrold Nadler’s (D-NY), has stalled in Congress.
The new Pennsylvania bill is currently in the labor and industry committee. It will have to pass out of committee and be voted on in the house and senate before it can head to the governor’s desk, where it has a decent chance of being signed given the profound gender gap hindering Gov. Corbett’s chances at re-election in the fall.