Alejandra Duarte was 19 weeks pregnant when she lost her baby. At the time, she was working 40 hours a week at a Central Massachusetts laundry facility, packing and pushing around large and heavy carts. When she found out she was pregnant, Duarte asked her supervisor to ease her load at work or move her to lighter duty. But instead, she was given more hours – 50 per week, and she had to take it or leave it. After working 10 hours on a Sunday, she felt a sharp pain in her belly. She had a miscarriage a few days after.
"I believe I lost my baby because I couldn't afford to stop working. I even had to leave my baby at the hospital because I didn't have $2,000 to bury him," says Duarte. "I went back to work a week later because I still couldn't afford to lose my wages."
It defies belief that pregnant workers need protection in an era when women have made so much progress in the workplace. Of course, Duarte can never prove that she lost her baby because her employer denied such a basic request. But a direct correlation shouldn't matter here; common sense should.
Yet, tragically, examples abound of women from all income levels and backgrounds.
It's just these stories that compelled state Representative Ellen Story to file the Pregnant Workers Fairness bill, which would close a gap in federal law that leaves healthy pregnant women open to discrimination in the workplace. Under Story's bill, they would be entitled to reasonable, temporary accommodations, like having a stool to sit on if the job requires the worker to be on her feet, or a modified work schedule, or getting extra water or bathroom breaks. Similar legislation has been approved in more than 15 states and cities. "Passing this bill is a win-win," says Story. "It means that if someone is not being treated in a humane and decent way at work during her pregnancy, and supervisors or HR leave her with no recourse, then she can file a lawsuit."
The legislation has been included as an amendment in the economic development bill now in conference committee. It enjoys widespread and near-unanimous support on Beacon Hill, a rare quality that, paradoxically, can cause a bill to be overlooked as a priority with two weeks left in the legislative session, when bigger, more controversial issues take the front seat.
For employers, this bill carries little cost, and the potential benefit of less turnover and increased productivity. But to the state's pregnant workers, 41 percent of whom are their family's primary income provider, it would represent a major step toward protecting their child's health and their own.
Women have been working alongside men for decades. At a time when the next frontier in workplace gender equality in the Commonwealth is pay equity, providing basic safeguards for pregnant working women should be a given. Legislators should swiftly pass the Pregnant Workers Fairness bill so women like Duarte don't have to choose between a healthy pregnancy or a job.