Labor rights and women's rights advocates called on the U.S. Senate to follow suit on Thursday after the Democratic-led House passed an historic bipartisan bill to protect the rights of pregnant workers—but expressed little hope that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell would prioritize the legislation.
The Pregnant Workers' Fairness Act (PWFA), first introduced in 2012, passed in a vote of 329-73, with 103 Republicans joining the Democrats in supporting the bill.
If signed into law, the legislation would require employers to make reasonable accommodations for job applicants or employees who are pregnant. Companies would be prohibited from: denying employment opportunities based on their need to make accommodations; requiring employees to take paid or unpaid leave if another arrangement can be made to allow them to safely do their job; and retaliating against workers who request accommodations for their pregnancies.
The women and children's advocacy group 1,000 Days emphasized that the legislation could especially help pregnant women stay safe at work during the coronavirus pandemic.
The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act would help ensure that pregnant workers trying to stay healthy during #COVID could request an accommodation from their employer like personal protective equipment, telework or staggered shift or commuting times. #ProtectPregnantWorkers pic.twitter.com/VM8dmexaaM
— 1,000 Days (@1000Days) September 15, 2020
"Too often pregnant workers have been denied accommodations—such as a stool to sit on, a schedule change, or a break from heavy lifting—sometimes with tragic consequences for their health and the health of their pregnancies," wrote the Leadership Conference on Civil & Human Rights in a letter to all members of Congress on Wednesday, urging lawmakers to support the PWFA.
"Pregnant workers who request accommodations have also been fired or pushed onto unpaid leave, cutting off both a paycheck and health insurance just when both are needed the most," the group added. "The health and economic consequences of this form of discrimination are even more heightened during the current Covid-19 pandemic, especially for pregnant people working in public-facing or essential jobs."
"This important legislation protects pregnant people from pregnancy discrimination in the workplace, so that no one has to choose between a job and a healthy pregnancy."
—NARAL Pro-Choice America
The passage of the legislation was lauded as a "tremendous step forward" for pregnant workers' rights by A Better Balance, a legal center focused on "addressing the work-family dilemma" created by a lack of legislation defending parents' and caregivers' rights in the workplace.
"In 2020, the mistreatment of pregnant women is a stain on our country and sends the message that we don't value pregnancy or motherhood," said Dina Bakst, co-founder of A Better Balance. "Especially during the pandemic, A Better Balance continues to hear daily from pregnant women, predominantly women of color, who are being fired or pushed out because they need small changes at work, changes that can sometimes mean the difference between a healthy pregnancy or a miscarriage."
"With this step forward, we are paving the way for gender equity not only for pregnant workers, but for their co-workers, their families, and their communities," Bakst added.
National organizations including the Leadership Conference, the National Women's Law Center, and progressive Catholic advocacy group NETWORK applauded the "historic win" for labor rights.
BREAKING: With HUGE bipartisan support, the House just passed the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act – an important bill to strengthen existing federal protections against pregnancy discrimination.
— The Leadership Conference (@civilrightsorg) September 17, 2020
BREAKING: For the first time ever the House has passed the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, with 226 Democrats and 103 Republicans voting in favor! This is a historic win!
— National Women's Law Center (@nwlc) September 17, 2020
We at NETWORK are proud to support the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act and calls on the Senate to end their partisan obstruction and take it up immediately. #ProtectPregnantWorkers https://t.co/jNnvipDvEd
— NETWORK (@NETWORKLobby) September 17, 2020
Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference, crystallized the difference between the Democratic-led House's actions as the nation faces the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and economic crisis, and those of the Republican-led Senate:
Here’s what’s happening in Congress today: The House will vote on a resolution condemning anti-Asian discrimination related to COVID and will pass bipartisan legislation to #ProtectPregnantWorkers. Over in the Senate, McConnell will push through more of Trump's judicial nominees.
— Vanita Gupta (@vanitaguptaCR) September 17, 2020
"Especially now, as pregnant workers face unprecedented challenges during the pandemic, the Senate must act without delay," said Bakst.
Though a majority of House Republicans ultimately voted with the Democratic Party on the PWFA, the party didn't let the vote go forward without first introducing an amendment to allow exceptions to the rule regarding employers' non-discrimination against pregnant workers.
As Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, explained, the GOP's amendment would have allowed companies to refuse to provide accommodations for workers "whose pregnancies they don't like" in the name of the employers' freedom of religion.
House vote now on Pregnant Workers Fairness Act! GOP's response? Amendment to allow employers to discriminate against employees whose pregnancies they don't like. Control and bigotry is central to who they are. Using "religion" to justify it fools no one. #protectpregnantworkers
— ilyseh (@ilyseh) September 17, 2020
In summary, the GOP invokes "religion" to deny workers access to contraception, to put in place draconian laws criminalizing abortion and now are pushing laws that deny pregnant people protections under law. This is not about religion; this is about control and oppression.
— ilyseh (@ilyseh) September 17, 2020
The amendment would have applied to pregnant workers who used in vitro fertilization to become pregnant, LGBTQ employees, and single parents, Hogue wrote.
"I know I shouldn't be shocked," Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) tweeted as lawmakers debated the legislation. "Still, I can't believe my Republican colleagues are speaking against protecting pregnant women at work."
I know I shouldn't be shocked.
Still, I can't believe my Republican colleagues are speaking against protecting pregnant women at work.
You would think they understood the importance of preventing pregnancy discrimination.
— Rashida Tlaib (@RashidaTlaib) September 17, 2020
The Republican amendment failed, with two Democrats—Reps. Ben McAdams (D-Utah.) and Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.)—joining the GOP in supporting it.
Having passed without amendments, NARAL said, "this important legislation protects pregnant people from pregnancy discrimination in the workplace, so that no one has to choose between a job and a healthy pregnancy."