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A pregnant woman meets with colleagues at work. (Photo: Getty Images/stock)

House Passes 'Historic' Legislation to Protect Pregnant Workers From Discrimination, Prompting Calls for Senate to Follow Suit

"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."

Julia Conley

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.

"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.

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:

"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.

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."

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."

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