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Pregnant workers’ bill heads to Baker’s desk

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A bill guaranteeing protections for pregnant workers was sent to the governor Thursday, part of a groundswell of support for pregnant workers’ rights that would make Massachusetts the latest in a long line of states to pass similar legislation in recent years.

The House and Senate passed slightly different versions of the bill earlier this year and reached a compromise this week. Governor Charlie Baker is supportive of the bill’s provisions and will review it carefully, said communications director Lizzy Guyton.

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The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act would require employers to provide “reasonable accommodation” for pregnant women, giving them the right to less strenuous duties, more frequent breaks, and temporary transfers, among other provisions, provided they don’t cause a business “significant difficulty or expense.” New mothers would also have the right to time off to recover from childbirth and a private space to express breast milk.

Similar measures have been passed in 21 states, and Washington, D.C., and a comparable federal bill was reintroduced in Congress in May.

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“We’re thrilled that the Massachusetts Legislature has seen the bipartisan light to be able to get behind a health bill that’s really moms and apple pie,” said Linda O’Connell, acting executive director of MotherWoman, the Holyoke advocacy group that pushed for the bill. “It is an absolutely positive measure that will only help women, families, and the entire community.”

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. The Americans with Disabilities Act covers some temporary conditions brought on by pregnancy, such as gestational diabetes, but doesn’t apply to more ordinary concerns, such as not lifting heavy loads.

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Many employers already provide these accommodations for pregnant workers, without the force of law — but the new legislation is aimed at employers that don’t.

“No pregnant worker should have to choose between their health, the health of their baby, and their job security,” said Lisa Newman, who was among a number of women who testified in front of the Joint Committee on Labor and Workforce Development about the bill. “This bill is reaching out to every single resident of Massachusetts. We all care about our friends, our families, our co-workers having healthy pregnancies and having healthy babies.”

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 go to doctor’s appointments during work hours. This went on for six years, over several pregnancies. 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.

A Smith spokesman said earlier this year that the college “has fair and progressive pregnancy accommodation policies and practices.”

In a statement, House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo, Democrat of Winthrop, thanked the women who shared their stories for helping make the state a “more just and safe place.”

“This is a proud day for Massachusetts and reinforces our dedication to protecting our residents — especially as events in Washington threaten the safety and security of women,” he said.

The measure was briefly derailed last month because of a one-word change that would have said employees could not “knowingly’’ refuse to hire someone who is pregnant. To prove an employer acted “knowingly” requires direct evidence that the employer knew the applicant was pregnant and denied her a job because of it — a much higher standard of proof.

After the Globe disclosed the change, that single word was removed from the bill.

The bill went through several iterations as business groups worked to address employers’ concerns, and in the end, Associated Industries of Massachusetts, one of the most powerful such organizations in the state, supported it.

“It’s a bill that really balances the needs of employees to make arrangements so that they can stay on the job through a pregnancy and at the same time creates a pathway for employers, as well, to create reasonable accommodations,” said spokesman Christopher Geehern. “A process by which a company is able to hold on to a valued employee really works to everybody’s benefit.”

The latest version of the bill directs companies to work with prospective employees, as well as current workers, to determine what accommodations are needed. The bill also has a nine-month “gestation period ” from the time of Governor Baker’s anticipated signature until it goes into effect, on April 1, noted O’Connell, of MotherWoman, instead of the normal 90 days.

O’Connell called out state Senator Joan Lovely, Democrat of Salem, for “this poetic piece of negotiation.”

“I believe it is imperative that we provide pregnant workers, 40 percent of whom are the primary breadwinner of their household, the certainty that they are able to keep their jobs without detriment to the health of their pregnancy,” Lovely said in a statement.

Katie Johnston can be reached at katie.johnston@globe.com.
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