New Delaware Law Will Ensure Employers Can’t Force Workers To Have Unsafe Pregnancies

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“Right now if you’re pregnant,” President Obama pointed out at the White House Summit on Working Families last week, “you could get fired for taking too many bathroom breaks…or forced on unpaid leave.” But that will soon no longer be true in the state of Delaware.

On Monday, the Delaware House of Representatives unanimously passed a bill that would protect pregnant workers from discrimination after the Senate had previously done the same. The state’s Pregnant Workers Fairness Act will require employers to make reasonable accommodations — such as providing a stool, allowing employees to drink water on the job, and putting workers on lighter duty — for pregnant workers who need them to stay on the job, unless they changes would impose an undue hardship on employers. It would also ban employers from firing workers because they need these accommodations, block them from forcing pregnant workers onto leave, prohibit them from making changes to a pregnant employee’s work when she doesn’t need them to do her job, and require that any accommodations or benefits that are made available to those with injuries or disabilities also be provided to pregnant workers.

That would help state residents like Nicole Villanueva, a hospital worker who developed shortness of breath and tightness in her chest during her pregnancy. Her doctor recommended that she stick to clerical work for the remainder, but her employer told her it wouldn’t make that change because she wasn’t injured at work. The hospital then fired her, saying she couldn’t return to her regular job.

Delaware’s bill is likely to become law soon. “We absolutely anticipate that the governor will sign this into law,” Liz Watson, director of workplace justice for women and senior counsel at the National Women’s Law Center, wrote in an email to ThinkProgress. “This bill had both Republican and Democratic leads on the Senate side, and passed with unanimous bipartisan support.”

Delaware joins a lonely group in passing such legislation. Eight others have passed similar laws, but, in the other 41, women can be forced to take unpaid leave or fired if they need these kinds of accommodations to keep working while pregnant. In a survey of women who had recently given birth, nearly two-thirds were employed during their pregnancies and the vast majority of them needed small changes to keep working such as more frequent breaks or doing less heavy lifting. Yet many never asked for them or were refused outright. Extrapolating to the broader population, more than a quarter million women are being denied their requests each year.

Those women can end up getting fired, going on unpaid leave that hurts their families’ finances, or even losing their babies in miscarriages. These challenges appear to be growing, as pregnancy discrimination charges have increased 65 percent in less than a decade.

A Pregnant Workers Fairness Act at the national level would make sure all American women are given the protections they need to stay on the job during their pregnancies. Such a bill has been introduced multiple times in Congress, yet it hasn’t gained any traction.