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Pregnant Worker Fairness Act sharpens enforcement teeth for employees in Pittsburgh and the U.S.

A pregnant woman gently holds her stomach.
Rogelio V. Solis
The law requires employers to give a pregnant worker such things as a chair to sit down, a water bottle, or an option to work from home, either before or after giving birth.

There’s a lot of up and down during Jodi Faltin’s workday as a registered nurse at West Penn Hospital.

“As soon as you sit down, you have to get back up again,” Faltin said. “Transporting patients, moving patients in bed, having to lift patients, whether you have help or not. And a lot of time being on your feet worrying about whether your shoes are going to be comfortable enough, or if you have the right kind of socks on.”

Faltin is pregnant with her first child, and the work persists.

Nursing was the most common occupation for pregnant workers in the U.S., according to a 2021 analysis of Census data by the National Women’s Law Center. Faltin’s co-workers have helped with strenuous tasks such as pushing beds and lifting patients.

“Even if it's something small, they'll say, ‘No, no, sit down, take a little break,’” Faltin said. “Put your feet up. But I know that that's not the case for everyone who has to work while they're pregnant.”

Pregnant workers in the U.S. don’t have to rely on helpful coworkers for accommodations in their workplace thanks to the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act. The City of Pittsburgh has a local code that’s similar, but the federal law goes beyond the boundaries. In workplaces with at least 15 employees, it gives pregnant workers and people who are applying to jobs the right to ask for and receive reasonable accommodations. These include taking time off for doctor’s visits, lifting lighter loads, working remotely or even taking a drink of water on the job. After more than a decade of advocacy, it went into effect last June. Two weeks ago, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission released the regulations for its enforcement.

It gives the new law “teeth,” according to Charlotte Burrows, chair of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. If the employer is not willing to provide an accommodation, the worker can file a charge with the EEOC. The agency can investigate and if a resolution isn’t met, they can bring a lawsuit against the employer at no cost to the employee.

This “dramatically changes the landscape in terms of what pregnant workers have available to them in terms of legal recourse in workplaces that aren't flexible enough to give them the accommodations they need to keep working while they're pregnant,” said Amal Bass, co-executive director of the Women’s Law Project.

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No magic words

Most people who are pregnant work. In the early 1960s, just 44% of pregnant women worked at any point during their pregnancy, according to Census data. About 73% of Pennsylvanians who were pregnant were employed during their pregnancy, according to 2020 Census data analyzed by the National Partnership of Women and Families.

The laws on the books to protect pregnant workers had many cracks. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act made it illegal for anyone to fire someone because they were pregnant. But employers could force workers to take unpaid leave, according to Burrows. Many pregnant workers fall outside of some of the protections of the Federal Medical Leave Act, which requires workers to work for at least a year and for 1,250 hours at a workplace with at least 50 employees. In Pennsylvania, there have been bills before the General Assembly to bolster support for pregnant workers, but they haven’t moved.

About one in six pregnant workers have low-paying jobs that can be physically demanding, like cashiers or home health care workers, according to the NWLC report. And they’re disproportionately Black and Latinx.

“I see it often in our service industry,” said Emily McGahey, clinical director at The Midwife Center for Birth and Women’s Health. “With cashiers, this comes up a lot. They have difficulty getting away from their registers or, they are required to stand for long periods of time and they may not have access to water bottles. I've seen that a lot.”

The new law requires employers to give a pregnant worker such things as a chair to sit down, a water bottle, or an option to work from home, either before or after giving birth. It also applies to those who are pregnant during the job application process, and there’s no set amount of time they have to work at the organization before they’re allowed to ask. And the employers can’t retaliate against them for asking.

“There's no special magic words that have to be used,” Burrows said. “The worker can simply say, I'm having trouble getting to work at my scheduled start time because of morning sickness, or I need more bathroom breaks because of my pregnancy. Or maybe I need time off from work to attend to medical appointments because of my pregnancy.”

Undue hardship

An employer must provide the water bottle, the ability to work remotely, or time off, unless it causes “undue hardship,” or significant difficulty or expense.

Some accommodations might not be as challenging as they were in the past. Since the pandemic, “it's a lot harder for an employer to say that it presents an undue hardship to provide remote work, especially if a lot of workplaces are currently hybrid,” Bass said.

The biggest challenge, according to Bass, is just making sure workers and employers know that these rights exist.

While the law is a “great step in the right direction” there’s still more work that needs to be done to support women in the workforce beyond giving them a water bottle or an extra break while pregnant, according to Kristin Ioannou, executive director of Pennsylvania Women Work, a workforce development agency.

Women in the city of Pittsburgh working full-time earn 80 cents for every dollar men earn, according to 2022 American Community Survey data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

"We see firsthand the incredible need for access to affordable childcare, better parental leave policies, and more flexible work environments. Those are things our clients are actively seeking when they are looking for employment and participating in our programs."