Last week, the New York City Council unanimously passed the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, a bill that ensures current protections against employer discrimination extend to pregnant workers, including the right to reasonable accommodations so that they can continue to work through their pregnancies. The bill expands the city’s Human Rights Law, which applies to all employers with four or more employees, to prevent discrimination against pregnant workers.
City employers now must provide reasonable accommodations for the needs of a worker related to pregnancy, childbirth, or a related medical condition. Some of those accommodations include rest breaks, assistance with manual labor, and a period of recovery from childbirth. Employers must also provide pregnant workers with a written notice of their rights.
If employers fail to grant pregnant workers these rights, employees can bring actions against their employers in civil court for damages and other remedies such as requiring it to change its practices. They can also bring a complaint to the city’s Commission on Human Rights, “which can order the employer to halt its practices, hire back employees, require back-pay for said employees or provide compensatory payments for damages,” Chester Soria reports at the Gotham Gazette. Offending employers could be fined as much as $250,000 or even be found guilty of a misdemeanor with possible jail time.
Nearly two-thirds of first-time mothers work while pregnant and 90 percent of those who do stay on the job into their last two months of pregnancy. Yet despite the fact that the federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act bars employer discrimination based on pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions, pregnant workers are often forced out of their jobs or denied accommodations that allow them to keep working. More than 40 percent of full-time low-wage workers say they’re not allowed to decide when to take breaks.
This lack of protection has led to many difficult, even fatal, experiences for pregnant workers across the country. The National Women’s Law Center and A Better Balance collected some of their stories. A worker named Yvette had her pregnancy end in a miscarriage after her manager refused to let her avoid heavy lifting and “actually responded by giving me more heavy lifting to do,” she says. Another named Svetlana Arizanovska also lost her baby after being made to lift heavy merchandise at Walmart despite the company’s initial agreement to put her on light duty. Reyna García has sued the grocery store where she works, claiming that its failure to accommodate her pregnancy led to the death of her baby.
Other women face trying situations. Amy Crosby was forced onto 12 weeks of unpaid leave after she brought in a doctor’s note saying that she couldn’t lift more than 20 pounds thanks to exacerbated carpal tunnel. She was told she would be considered to have “voluntarily resigned” if she didn’t return without restrictions after the leave.
These individual stories illustrate a problem that has become widespread. According to New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, a fifth of the discrimination charges filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission are related to pregnancy. More than 3,700 such charges were filed last year, and the number rose by 65 percent between 1992 and 2007.
In enacting legislation to better protect these workers, New York joins just a handful of states that have passed similar laws since 2000, which include Alaska, California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Louisiana, and Texas, according to A Better Balance. Yet no fix has been made for workers in the rest of the states. The federal Pregnant Workers Fairness Act would ensure these workplace protections for all workers, which was re-introduced in the House and Senate in May. Yet it has gone no where and didn’t even garner a hearing.