On Tuesday, the New York State legislature passed a bill aimed at shielding pregnant women from workplace discrimination, which the governor has said he will sign.
The new law will require employers to give pregnant workers accommodations so they can stay on the job unless the employer can show it would create an undue hardship. Those changes can be as small as a stool to sit on or more frequent bathroom breaks, and can also include light duty for women with lifting restrictions or other work transfers. Across the country, an estimated quarter million women are denied these requests every year, which means they often end up pushed onto unpaid leave, fired, or experience health complications including miscarriage. Many more women don’t even ask for accommodations because they fear retaliation.
Existing laws, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act and Americans with Disabilities Act, should in theory protect pregnant women from discrimination. And in fact, the Supreme Court recently ruled in favor of Peggy Young, a woman suing UPS over its refusal to give her light duty when she became pregnant. That ruling helps bolsters women who need accommodations, but its impact is likely to be limited. “To get an accommodation under the Supreme Court’s standard in Young v. UPS, pregnant workers must navigate a long, convoluted, and costly process to prove discrimination,” Dina Bakst, co-president of advocacy group of A Better Balance, told ThinkProgress. “Most women simply don’t have the luxury of time or the resources to make that happen.”
Instead, laws like New York’s make things clear from the outset, before women are pushed onto leave or fired. Women “just need clear law when they ask for a minor adjustment at work so they can stay healthy for a few months,” Bakst explained. More and more women will need these adjustments, as the share of first-time mothers working while pregnant has shot up from less than half in 1960 to two-thirds today, and 80 percent keep working into their last month.
New York’s new law could come to the aid of women like Betzaida Cruz Cardona, who lives in Henrietta, New York and is suing Savers, her former employer, for firing her from her cashier job hours after she handed in a doctor’s note stipulating she couldn’t lift more than 25 pounds even though she was never required to do so. She says she has since become homeless. While she argues that the company violated existing federal law, things could have been easier if she lived in New York City, which already has a Pregnant Worker Fairness Act on the books that would have made it clear that her employer had to accommodate her needs.
Eleven other states have also implemented laws requiring reasonable accommodations for pregnant employees. A federal bill that would cover all women has been introduced in Congress multiple times, but it has yet to advance.