West Virginia Considers Bold New Protections For Pregnant Workers

CREDIT: Shutterstock

While New Jersey and New York City were the latest to pass workplace protections for pregnant workers, a new state has taken up the cause: West Virginia.

The state has long been mostly purple, but has’t voted for a Democratic president since 1996. Yet now it’s embracing a new requirement for its employers championed by progressives. Its Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, which requires employers to make “reasonable accommodations” for pregnant workers unless there is undue hardship, unanimously passed the House on Wednesday.

While there are some existing federal protections for pregnant workers, they can still suffer financial hardship or even health problems when employers refuse to accommodate them. One West Virginia worker, who wished to remain anonymous because she is still employed, found out the hard way when her employer in the chemical industry put her on unpaid leave when she showed a doctor’s note that she couldn’t work with a particular chemical. Her story had a positive outcome: after she hired a lawyer, the company came to the table and they came to an agreement. But as Margaret Chapman Pomponio, executive director of WV Free, one of the organizations helping to propel the bill forward, told ThinkProgress, “This law will address those problems without having to have the resources to get a lawyer.”

It now must pass the Senate, and Pomponio said that while she doesn’t have a vote count, “We’re optimistic that it’ll see solid support in the Senate.” Many of the Senators have previously supported bills relating to maternity care and prenatal health. She added, “I have no reason to doubt that the governor [Earl Ray Tomblin (D)] would sign it.” The bill even survived an attempt to attack it through the amendment process by introducing two tied to anti-abortion language, with some Republicans helping to vote the amendments down.

The fact that this sort of measure has moved to West Virginia is a good sign that these kinds of protections are “really sort of common sense,” Emily Martin, vice president and general counsel at the National Women’s Law Center, said in an interview. If it passes there, it is “evidence that this is not just for New York City, this is a principle and a law that makes sense both as a matter of policy and politics in a lot of different places.”

And women around the country need these protections. In a recent survey, nearly two-thirds of women who had recently given birth said they had worked during their pregnancies, and the vast majority needed some sort of change to continue working while protecting their health, such as more frequent breaks, taking time to get health care, or a change in duties to avoid heavy lifting or to accommodate more sitting. Yet many don’t bring up their needs, quite possibly out of a fear of repercussions or being refused. And the percentage of those who had their requests rejected comes out to a substantial number of women: more than a quarter million women are denied each year.

That can have serious consequences. One woman sued her employer for the death of her baby after it failed to accommodate her needs, and other women have similarly lost their babies. Women can also end up forced on unpaid leave, using up their leave time and suffering wage loss, or are made to leave their jobs altogether. Pregnancy discrimination charges about these sort of workplace problems have been on the rise, jumping by 65 percent in less than a decade.

The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act was introduced at the federal level yet again in May of last year, but so far it hasn’t gained traction.