By Joshua C. Black, Esq.
More than 40 years ago, Congress amended the civil rights laws to cover pregnant women. The modification provided female employees federal protection from being fired, reassigned, docked pay, or denied benefits solely based on their condition. While this was a landmark case in 1970s, the legislation has proven insufficient in an era where 46.9% of the workforce is now female.
The 1978 legislation only applies to companies with more than 15 fulltime employees and doesn’t take into account accommodations pregnant women may need like additional bathroom breaks, private areas to pump milk if breastfeeding, and opportunities to sit down while performing job responsibilities.
In an effort to provide more reasonable accommodations for workers who are pregnant or have a pregnancy-related condition in today’s workplace, the U.S. House of Representatives recently passed HR2694, also known as the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (PWFA.)
What is the PWFA?
The bipartisan bill, which passed the House on Sept. 14, 2020, was designed to “eliminate discrimination and promote women’s health and economic security by ensuring reasonable workplace accommodations for workers whose ability to perform the functions of a job are limited by pregnancy, childbirth, or a related medical condition.”
Under the PWFA, it would be unlawful for an employer to deny reasonable accommodations to a qualified employee for limitations related to pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions. The PWFA would prohibit employers from requiring a qualified employee to take paid or unpaid leave if a reasonable accommodation can be provided. It also prevents an employee from being forced to accept an accommodation that is not considered “reasonable.”
Additionally, the PWFA would make it unlawful for employers to take action against a qualified employee who requests a reasonable accommodation or to deny employment opportunities or pay raises to qualified employees because of a need for pregnancy-related accommodations. Examples of pregnancy-related, reasonable accommodations may include additional breaks to drink water, opportunities for sitting breaks, limiting heavy lifting and temporary duty reassignment.
Comparable to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the PWFA requires employers to engage in an interactive process to determine the feasibility of a pregnant employee’s requested accommodations.
In the months ahead, the Senate will consider the PWFA. If passed, the act will provide consistent federal guidance and protection for pregnant workers across the U.S.
If the PWFA is enacted, businesses of all sizes, will need to review and update workplace policies and procedures to ensure compliance with the new law. The PWFA will largely align with many aspects of the ADA, so employers should already be familiar with requirements necessary to engage in an interactive process to determine reasonable accommodations that will suit a pregnant employee and her needs, while avoiding undue hardship on the employer.