Public policy and laws in the United States have not historically supported pregnant people or people who have recently given birth. Pregnant workers have never had the guarantee to be able to continue to earn income and have a healthy and safe pregnancy at the same time. This changed with the 117th Congress this past December 22, 2022 when the most racially and ethnically diverse Congressional body in history, a body made up of just over 25% of women with an additional 11 openly LGBTQIA+ members, made more political history.
Come June 2023, employers will now be required to grant reasonable accommodations for pregnant workers under the bipartisan Pregnant Workers Fairness (PWFA) and Providing Urgent Maternal Protections Acts (PUMP). Both acts were passed in the flurry of amendments to the $1.7 trillion omnibus bill at the end of last year, and are a huge victory for pregnant workers and families.
Pregnant Workers Fairness Act
The purpose of the PWFA is “to eliminate discrimination and promote women’s health and economic security by ensuring reasonable workplace accommodations for workers whose ability to perform the functions of a job are limited by pregnancy, childbirth or a related medical condition.” The adoption of “reasonable accommodations”was drawn directly from its usage in the Disabilities Act of 1990, albeit for pregnant workers and on a temporary basis.
Reasonable accommodations are defined as temporary light duty or similar arrangements—think more frequent bathroom breaks or an option to sit. The PWFA requires employers with 15 or more workers to provide arrangements for job applicants and employees with conditions related to pregnancy or childbirth. It also prohibits employers from discriminating against a job candidate or employee because of their need for pregnancy-related accommodation.
Bipartisan support for pregnant workers closes loopholes in Pregnancy Discrimination Act.
This is the first time since 1978, when the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) was passed, that the direly needed new policy was able to make it through both the House and the Senate. The PDA made it illegal for a worker to be fired or treated differently while they were pregnant, but left open many loopholes for employers to refuse granting reasonable accommodations for pregnant workers. In the decades since, waves of discrimination lawsuits have been filed in a wild landscape of state specific protections and piecemeal judicial rulings. Often, by the time these workers saw their day in court, they were no longer pregnant and either had to leave their job—sacrificing their income and economic security—or worked through unsafe conditions.
Michelle McGrain, Director of Congressional Relations and Economic Justice at the National Partnership for Women and Families, shares with Parents the essential breakdown of the PWFA. “If an employer provides similar accommodations to people for non-pregnancy related reasons, for example, if you’ve had surgery and you need an accommodation, then it also has to provide those accommodations for pregnant workers.” McGrain notes that the PWFA is really just a simple fix for the holes left from the PDA, where employers now have a proactive responsibility to offer these accommodations and they don’t have to offer them if it would have an adverse impact on their business.
The PWFA has been introduced in every Congress since 2011, and it passed the House in May 2021. It then sat in general silence with the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee for months. It passed this past December after religious exemption language was added, which will impact those who work for religious employers.
The PUMP act for nursing employees was created to address the gaps in the 2010 Break Time Law and will protect around 9 million more employees who need to express milk at work and were excluded from the 2010 law.
Providing Urgent Maternal Protections Act
Just as the PWFA was created to address the gap in the PDA, the PUMP act for nursing employees was created to address the gaps in the 2010 Break Time Law so that all employees with a need to express breast milk can receive the full benefits of the law. This will further protect around 9 million employees who have been excluded from the 2010 law by extending protections to cover salaried and other categorized employees, provide greater clarity on when pumping time is paid or unpaid, and protect workers from having their pay docked.
With every new election cycle we continue to see the expansion of representatives who have historically been denied voice and access to our federal government and policy making. Taking in this important win for pregnant workers, parents and families, we can see directly what happens when we have greater Congressional diversity. Stronger policies that support all parents and families. Perhaps we can now look toward the next steps in bridging the gaps between family values and legislative national policy: paid sick days for pregnant workers and paid parental leave.