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  • Writer's pictureHolly Corbett

What The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act Means For Businesses And Caregivers

Pregnant woman writing at desk
The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act expands protections for working mothers.GETTY

A new law went into effect this week that expands protections for working mothers after more than a decade in the making, and with bipartisan support. Called the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (PWFA), it requires employers with 15 or more employees to make reasonable accommodations when workers need them because of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions, such as fertility treatments or postpartum depression.

“One of the things I find exciting about the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act is that it demonstrates that—even in an incredibly partisan time—there are places where bipartisan agreement around policies that make people's lives better are still possible,” says Emily Martin, vice president for education and workplace justice at the National Women’s Law Center.

The writing of the PWFA intentionally left “reasonable accommodations” undefined, because every job is different and every pregnancy is different. Rather, it leaves the conversation up to employers and employees together to figure out the accommodations that best meet the needs of both sides. These needs could range from providing a stool to sit on to more bathroom or water breaks to a flexible schedule.

The PWFA helps fill in some of the gaps from the previous two main sources of federal legal protections for pregnant people prior to its passing. One is the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978, which says employers can't discriminate on the basis of pregnancy and employers have to treat pregnant workers equal to another worker. This particular legislation made it hard to interpret in the courts, as there is not always another pregnant worker that an employee can prove is being treated better.

The other is the Americans with Disabilities Act, which does require employers to make accommodations, but the issue is that pregnancy is not a disability. However, pregnancy can have an impact on your ability to do various physical tasks. “The PWFA fills the gaps by saying all you have to do as a pregnant worker is to show there's a limitation arising out of pregnancy, childbirth or a related medical condition, and there's a reasonable accommodation that would allow you to continue to do your job that would not impose an undue hardship on the employer,” says Martin.

This clarity helps the PWFA to be a win for women, who left the workforce at higher rates than men during the pandemic due in large part to increased caregiving duties, as well as for businesses, who are facing an ongoing labor shortage. “It's not just workers who benefit, the PWFA is going to make it so much easier for companies to understand and comply with the law,” says Reshma Saujani, founder and CEO of Moms First. “More importantly, it's going to enable organizations to retain women they desperately need and increase their productivity.”

In recent years, the pandemic magnified the many barriers mothers in the workplace face, from the pay gap to the motherhood penalty to the lack of affordable childcare. Also impacting expectant mothers’ ability to remain in the workforce is the fact the U.S. is one of a few countries with no paid time off, lacking a guaranteed national family and medical leave.

“We also know from a variety of research that employers—whether consciously or unconsciously—often rely on the stereotype that mothers are less competent and committed [to their jobs], while also conversely assuming that fathers are more committed at work,” says Martin. “We know from those studies that those stereotypes kick in during pregnancy, before you even have a child. All of this is part of why pregnancy discrimination continues to be a real obstacle and barrier in the workplace.”

Companies who fail to accommodate pregnant women and working mothers will lose top talent who will seek out employers that also support their roles as caregivers. “The discrimination I experienced while pregnant in 2019 led to significant emotional distress, and I made a commitment to myself to find a new job because the environment was no longer suitable for me, which I did,” says Laura Espriu, 36, a talent development leader who heads the Latina chapter of Seattle’s LeanIn Network. “I learned that we need to decide when is enough and take control of what we can influence.”

After her experience of being pregnant in the workplace and through her role at LeanIn, Espriu partnered with Better Balance, a national nonprofit advocacy organization, to inform other working Latina mothers in the Seattle area about the rights of pregnant workers and the resources available to them. “It's crucial to acknowledge the work of organizations like Better Balance and others that fight for better conditions for women during pregnancy,” she says. “We must continue using various platforms and resources to improve conditions, enabling women to stay in the workplace and contribute to the U.S. economy.”

While the PWFA won’t solve for the lack of paid leave or the pay gap mothers face in the workplace, it’s a step in the right direction that supports one of the trouble spots people starting their families may first run into in the workplace: pregnancy and childbirth.

“We've never designed workplaces to work for moms in this country, and the fact that until recently many pregnant workers had to choose between their paychecks and their safety is proof of that,” says Saujani. “The PWFA going into effect this week is historic; it's a huge bipartisan legislative win that will not only protect pregnant workers with reasonable common sense accommodations at work, but also sends a powerful message that motherhood and work aren't incompatible.”

*Article originally published in Forbes


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