House passes bill to protect pregnant workers
The Massachusetts House on Wednesday unanimously passed a bill that would give pregnant women the right to special accommodations at work, such as more frequent breaks, less strenuous duties, and the ability to sit down on the job.
The bill is widely expected to be approved by the Senate and by Governor Charlie Baker, who has expressed support for the protections in the bill.
The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act would require employers to provide “reasonable accommodation” for pregnant women, as well as nursing mothers, provided they don’t cause a business “significant difficulty or expense.”
Attorney General Maura Healey applauded the bill’s passage, noting in a statement that it is “an important step towards achieving equality in the workplace.”
A previous version of the bill was introduced during the last legislative session, but it died in committee after House leadership blocked its passage. The Associated Industries of Massachusetts raised concerns that the earlier bill would burden employers, but the business association has since reached an agreement with the advocacy group behind the bill to address employers’ concerns, namely ensuring that workers don’t have an unlimited ability to reject offers proposed by the employer.
Similar measures to protect pregnant workers have been passed in 19 states, including last week in Vermont, and a comparable federal bill was reintroduced in Congress on Wednesday.
Three-quarters of women become pregnant at some point during their working lives, according to the Center for American Progress, and the vast majority of them work late into their pregnancies.
The federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act prevents employers from firing women for being pregnant but offers no additional protections, said Liz Friedman, lead organizer for the statewide coalition pushing the bill. The Americans with Disability Act covers some temporary conditions brought on by pregnancy, such as gestational diabetes, she noted, but doesn’t apply to more ordinary concerns, such as not lifting heavy loads.
“These minor accommodations aren’t covered under the ADA, nor should they be, because it’s not a disability, it’s a pregnancy,” Friedman said.
AIM spokesman Christopher Geehern said the association was very happy with the House vote.
“We believe most of these accommodations frankly represent common-sense things that most employers do, anyway,” he said.
Not all employers treat pregnant workers fairly, however.
Lisa Newman got pregnant shortly after she started working as a systems analyst for Smith College in Northampton, and she said the response was so hostile that she was afraid to take bathroom breaks during meetings or ask for the flexibility to go to doctor’s appointments.
This went on for six years, over several pregnancies. When she asked for two weeks of medical leave for surgery following a miscarriage, she said, her supervisor demanded to know how many babies she was planning to have because her pregnancies were affecting her work. Newman was so afraid of losing her job, she said, that she stopped attending physical therapy for pregnancy-related back pain and had trouble eating.
Newman, who testified in front of the Joint Committee on Labor and Workforce Development about the bill, resigned in 2012 and filed a complaint last year against the women’s college, which was dismissed because it was filed too late.
A Smith spokesman said that the college “has fair and progressive pregnancy accommodation policies and practices.”
The bill just passed by the House would have allowed Newman to have a healthier pregnancy, she said, and given her the confidence to know her job was secure.
“Knowing that when this law passes you have legal backing, that this is not allowed, is a huge win not just for pregnant workers, I think, but for everyone,” she said.
Ellen Story, the recently retired state representative from Amherst who was an initial sponsor of the bill and also championed a workplace antibullying statute, noted that denying pregnant women bathroom breaks, or a new mother a private place to pump breast milk, is “another form of bullying.”
The timing of the vote is fortuitous, Story added.
“This would be a good time for both the House and Senate to do this and send it to the governor in time for Mother’s Day.”