Bill to aid pregnant workers is long overdue

[Via The Spokesman-Review] We’re well into the second decade of the 21st century, yet when it comes to working mothers, our policies are stuck in the “Mad Men” era, one in which women don’t work, or quit when they get pregnant.

In reality, seven out of 10 mothers in the United States work, and 40 percent are the primary or only breadwinner in their household. For these women and their families, earning money is not a choice, it’s a necessity.

And yet, too often, employers’ policies – and our state’s laws – fail to provide working mothers with the support they need.

Dozens of women across Washington have told us they are being forced to take leave without pay when they become pregnant or, worse, losing their jobs. These shocking blows come at a time when their families are expanding and need more income than ever.

What happens is often subtle: A pregnant health care worker is advised by her doctor not to lift more than 30 pounds, but when she requests assistance or temporary rearrangement of her duties, her employer places her on leave without pay. Or a pregnant bank teller needs short respites from standing, but instead of additional breaks or even a stool, she gets put on a “performance improvement plan.” Or a pregnant employee at a manufacturing plant requests simple protective gear so she can avoid chemical exposure, but is fired for supposedly refusing to do her job.

Current laws prohibit pregnancy discrimination, of course. But proving discrimination is often an uphill battle for these women. And why should these women have to do so when a simple accommodation might allow them to continue working?

The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (HB 2307 and SB 6149), currently before the Washington Legislature, would do much to correct these problems. These common-sense bills require employers to provide reasonable work accommodations during pregnancy, such as temporary assignment to light duty, additional bathroom breaks, the ability to carry a water bottle on the sales floor, or flexible scheduling to allow for prenatal appointments. While these are the most common types of accommodations, employers and employees need flexibility when determining what will work in a particular situation – flexibility a strong law can provide.

In a normal, healthy pregnancy, a woman can work well into her third trimester. In fact, about nine out of 10 first-time working mothers do so. Setting clearer standards for what’s required to keep these women working will benefit employers and employees alike.

Of course, accessing a remedy through the courts may sometimes be necessary for women who have been wrongfully fired. But passing a clear law that sets the standard for accommodating pregnant workers allows women to work with their employers to get the simple accommodations they need for their temporary condition and avoid litigation that drags on well past their pregnancies.

These bills aren’t about making lawyers rich, or creating problems for businesses. And they aren’t about giving women preferential treatment. They are about leveling an uneven playing field to ensure women can continue earning a paycheck without jeopardizing their health or the health of their babies.

No woman should have to choose between a healthy pregnancy and her livelihood. Allowing women the flexibility to work through their changing (and temporary) situations is the least employers can do to support healthy pregnancies and, as a result, healthier starts for babies.

And passing this common-sense bill is the least that state lawmakers can do. Washington would join 15 states, the District of Columbia and four cities that have passed similar laws. The bill has diverse support, with endorsements from numerous medical professional groups, women’s rights organizations, labor representatives and children’s advocates. There is bipartisan support in the House and Senate.

It’s in everyone’s best interest to keep pregnant women in the workforce. It’s time Washington law reflects that.

Janet Chung is legal and legislative counsel at Legal Voice, where she works to advance reproductive and economic justice for women through advocacy, litigation and legal rights education. Sherry Jones is a Spokane author and journalist, and chair of the sexual harassment/violence committee of Spokane Area National Organization for Women.

Published by waworkfam

The Washington Work and Family Coalition includes representatives of seniors, women, labor, health professionals, children’s advocates, faith communities, low income workers, employers, non-profits and other organizations. We’re working together to make it easier for parents to raise healthy children and care for aging parents; for workers to care for themselves or their partners in the event of a serious illness; and for businesses to offer modern workplace standards that improve productivity and worker health.

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