This month marks the one-year anniversary of the New York City Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, which requires that employers make “reasonable accommodations” for pregnant workers.
“The law … represents a big step forward for working women,” wrote Rachel Swarns, covering the anniversary for the New York Times.
Under NYC’s law, reasonable accommodations include restroom breaks, periodic breaks from standing, assistance with manual labor, and leaves for pregnancy-related disability.
And although some base protections are provided to all pregnant American women by the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 (PDA) and the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), more cities and states are enacting similar legislation all across the country.
According to A Better Balance, there are 13 states and four cities that have passed such laws, many just in the last six months; the governor of Illinois signed legislation Oct. 10 that requires pregnancy accommodation and a place for lactating women to express milk. And there are more campaigns in the works; the organization lists five in particular.
And as The Nashville Business Journal reported Oct. 15, in December the Supreme Court will hear arguments that could result in a broadened interpretation of PDA.
This groundswell of support isn’t even limited to the United States: On Oct. 23, the BBC reported that Japan’s Supreme Court had sided with a woman who unsuccessfully sued an employer that refused to reinstate her to her former position after a pregnancy-related demotion.
Responsibilities and Rights: Employers and Employees
One challenge for pregnant workers seeking accommodation is that it can be difficult to know whether an employer is purposefully denying its workers their rights or if the company is truly unaware of new pregnancy-related legislation.
On both Oct. 19 and Oct. 20, the New York Times dedicated columns to examining cases of women who have lost their jobs or experienced employment problems despite the new legislation. They conclude that despite enforcement difficulties, these laws can result in preserving women’s jobs during their pregnancies — which, particularly for low-wage workers, can prevent them from spiraling into poverty at the very time in their lives they can least afford it.
So what should a pregnant woman do if she believes her employer is refusing to accommodate her in violation of federal, state or local law?
“Local legislation for pregnancy discrimination is definitely a step in the right direction,” says Jason A. Charpentier, Partner, Growe Eisen Karlen. “Educating employers about their responsibilities toward their pregnant employees is key. Although you will always find employers who want to skirt the law on this issue, in my practice I find that many employers just don’t know the current state of the law.”