Metro

One word has blocked a pregnant workers’ protection bill

Speaker Robert A. DeLeo has vowed to make it a priority to get the workers bill approved in the House this year.

Elise Amendola/Associated Press/File 2016

Speaker Robert A. DeLeo has vowed to make it a priority to get the workers bill approved in the House this year.

A much-celebrated compromise that fast-tracked a state bill aimed at protecting pregnant women in the workplace has been stopped in its tracks.

It’s all because of a one-word change that a House committee quietly added to the legislation before it passed that chamber last month without a dissenting vote.

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The discovery of that addition to the legislation — which a women’s advocacy group negotiated with the state’s powerful business lobby, Associated Industries of Massachusetts — puts the bill’s future in doubt.

The agreed-upon bill language had originally stated that employers could not legally “refuse to hire a person who is pregnant because of the pregnancy or because of a condition related to the pregnancy.”

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But it emerged from the House Committee on Ways and Means for a full vote on the floor with the word “knowingly” added at the beginning of that sentence. The language passed in the House without anyone noticing the change, and now the bill awaits a vote in the Senate.

It’s an addition that advocates for these pregnant worker protections say creates a serious new layer of what a worker would have to prove if she felt there was discrimination in her denial of a job. To prove an employer acted “knowingly” requires direct evidence that the employer knew the applicant was pregnant and denied them a job because of it — a much higher standard of proof.

Those advocates declined to comment publicly about the bill during ongoing negotiations. But sponsors of the bill, including those who have lobbied Beacon Hill for several years to get it into law, said the presence of the additional language is unacceptable and a potential “deal breaker.”

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The proposal had moved quickly through the Senate last year, but AIM, which wields influence with the House and Governor Charlie Baker’s administration, had bottled it up in the House.

Speaker Robert A. DeLeo, following a Globe story detailing how AIM had successfully stopped the legislation from moving in the 2016 session, vowed to make it a priority to get the bill approved in the House this year.

The compromise legislation emerged following weeks of negotiations between AIM representatives, legislative supporters, and the Hadley-based nonprofit MotherWoman Inc., the group that has led the fight for these protections.

That version did not contain the word “knowingly” to open the section prohibiting an employer from discriminating in hiring of pregnant workers, according to AIM representatives and advocates.

Linda O’Connell, the executive director of MotherWoman, said her group is “in discussions” with members of the coalition that has been fighting for the bill for several years. but she would not elaborate further.

“I need to leave it there,’’ she said. “It is intriguing. . . . We were not specifically told about this, but committees do things.”

Asked how the language was added without sponsors being alerted, a DeLeo spokesman said the decision was made by the House legal staff.

“This addition was made at the recommendation of House counsel to clarify the law,’’ DeLeo press aide Seth Gitell stated. He had no further comment.

AIM spokesman Chris Geehern said his organization, which represents more than 4,000 small and large companies around the state, was not involved in putting the new word into the bill.

“We didn’t put it there,’’ said Geehern, adding AIM only learned about the additional wording this week. “But we have learned that the advocates have some concerns and we will touch base with them.”

Those pushing the bill are taken aback they were not told of the change.

“It wasn’t discussed with us,’’ one person who was involved in pushing the bill said. Asked how it slipped by, the person, who did not want to speak publicly amid negotiations, said, “Stuff happens.”

In addition to prohibiting an employer from denying a woman a job because of her pregnancy, the bill also makes it illegal for a boss to deny or demote a worker because of her need for pregnancy-related accommodations, unless it would impose an undue hardship on the business. Workers also cannot be forced to take leaves if they are able to perform their jobs.

Frank Phillips can be reached at frank.phillips@globe.com.
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