The 117th Congress passed the bipartisan Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (PWFA) and the Providing Urgent Maternal Protections (PUMP) for Nursing Mothers Act in the late hours before adjournment on Dec. 29th. PWFA and PUMP were part of a $1.7 trillion package of bills and spending measures in the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2023 which President Biden promptly signed into law. Both are important advances for pregnant and nursing women who are also employed – 88 percent of women continue to be employed into their third trimester.
It has been eight years since the Supreme Court case, Young v. United Parcel Service, Inc. exposed several loopholes in the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (1978)that allowed employers to lay off pregnant persons without attempting to provide reasonable accommodation. Because so many women who become pregnant while employed were finding themselves laid off or were forced to quit their jobs for lack of accommodation, lawsuits brought by pregnant ex-employees piled up over the years.
A pregnant woman’s paycheck is often essential for the well-being of the family, not to forget to mention that employment may be the source of the family’s health insurance, including coverage for pregnancy exams, labor and delivery care.
Pregnant Women Assured Accommodation on the Job
This is a long-awaited and welcome action, and many kudos are due to Peggy Young, the plaintiff in the case which ultimately prompted a legislative solution. Young’s employer, United Parcel Service, Inc., required her to lift up to 70 lbs. as part of her responsibility as a pickup and delivery driver. Her doctor restricted her to lifting only 20 lbs. during the first 20 weeks and then 10 lbs. during the rest of the pregnancy. UPS placed Young on leave without pay and she subsequently lost her employee medical coverage. Young argued discriminatory treatment in that other UPS employees who needed accommodation due to injury or other health reasons were provided that. But a very narrow solution imposed by the court did not adequately resolve the problem for Young or for other pregnant employees who may lose their jobs.
Thus, we have the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act which aligns some provisions with the Americans with Disability Act (ADA). Passed in 1990, the ADA assures persons with a disability reasonable accommodation on the job as a civil right.
Nursing Mothers get Additional Protections
Also passed as part of the Consolidated Appropriations Act was another bipartisan bill, the Providing Urgent Maternal Protections for Nursing Mothers Act (PUMP Act for Nursing Mothers Act). The U.S. Breastfeeding Committee is a coalition of national, state and local organizations and agencies allied to promote breastfeeding and human milk feeding. The PUMP for Nursing Mothers Act expands protections for nursing parents by mandating space and time for nursing or pumping breast milk. Both the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act and the PUMP Act for Nursing Mothers are scheduled to take effect on June 27th.
Why are these New Laws Important?
Pregnancy can be a physically, mentally, and emotionally challenging time for many people. The changes that alter a body during pregnancy are what the PWFA takes into account by assuring reasonable accommodations. These accommodations, as provided by A Better Balance, include:
- “Light duty”, which provides help with manual labor and lifting.
- The pregnant person can be temporarily put into a less physically demanding or safer position.
- Additional, longer, or more flexible breaks to rehydrate, eat some food, rest for a bit, or use the restroom more frequently. Along these lines, employers may be changing their policies to allow for food and drinks to be accessible for the worker.
- Providing a chair or stool for some workplaces, as well as providing spaces for privacy that aren’t bathrooms, or adding a lock to a room to create a temporary lactation space for breastfeeding workers.
- Tailoring dress codes to allow for things like maternity pants.
- Altering work schedules to be shorter or start later to adjust for morning sickness.
- Schedule accommodations that allow for medical appointments.
- Time off for bedrest, recovery from childbirth, mastitis, and more.
The PUMP for Nursing Mothers Act provides additional protections to nursing workers, as listed below:
- Gives workers the right and the space to pump breast milk at work.
- Workers can sue their employers if their employers do not comply.
- Explains that time spent pumping must be compensated if the worker is not completely relieved from their duties.
These accommodations allow pregnant and nursing persons to not only remain healthy and able to work, but they prevent additional stress by affirming that pregnant people cannot be fired for needing adjustments due to their condition.
More Information on Pregnancy Risks at Work
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) already lists that a person is protected against pregnancy-based discrimination and harassment at work under federal law, but these new acts are more expansive to the other basic needs of pregnant and nursing people. What pregnant workers need to know is spelled out at, Pregnancy Discrimination and Pregnancy-Related Disability Discrimination | U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (eeoc.gov)
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC) explain that physical jobs are significant risks for pregnant persons for a variety of reasons including miscarriage and injury, which only further illustrates how important these acts are for protecting pregnant and nursing workers. These accommodations would allow for more people to be able to breastfeed their children, have easier pregnancies and reduce the risk of injury to parent or child while in the workplace, and not risk losing income if they are unable to physically meet the demands of a job they are capable of doing whilst not pregnant.
What Else is Still Needed?
Although these protections are an excellent start, there is always room for improvement. With all of the protections that the PWFA and PUMP for Nursing Mothers Act offer, there are still things that should be provided to pregnant and nursing people. The Pew Charitable Trusts report that while many states like Illinois, Delaware, Minnesota, West Virginia, the District of Columbia, Alaska, Connecticut, Maryland, New Jersey, California, Louisiana, Hawaii, as well as a few other states and some assorted cities already had protections prior to the PWFA like extra bathroom breaks and accommodations for seating, the PWFA ensures protections at the federal level for all workers in every state with some exceptions. The exceptions for who does not have to provide accommodations include employers with less than 15 employees. Additionally, A Better Balance also points out that the PWFA “does not include an explicit exemption from the Religious Freedom Restoration Act” which means that business owners could potentially still argue that federal laws may be burdensome on their religious freedoms.
Where to Go from Here:
While the PWFA and PUMP acts will be a great step forward in protecting pregnant and nursing workers, there is still more that should be done. One way to improve conditions for pregnant and nursing workers is to fight for paid family and medical leave. This would ensure that workers taking leave to give birth or taking time off for a medical situation would not lose their jobs or be financially penalized. Another thing worth fighting for is better accommodations for mental health issues for pregnant and nursing workers, especially considering how risks of postpartum depression affect anywhere from “6.5% to 20% of women” according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information. We can and should be doing more to protect the rights and well-being of pregnant people, and paid leave is the next logical step. Want to learn more or get involved? Here are some organizations that are currently fighting for paid leave:
Karly Michon, Membership/Accounting Inter at NOW