Congress expands protections for pregnant and nursing workers

Tucked in the $1.7 trillion bill to fund the government that Congress passed last week are two key provisions aimed at protecting pregnant and nursing workers.

The first measure, the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, requires that employers provide pregnant workers with reasonable accommodations, such as access to water, increased bathroom breaks and restrictions on lifting heavy objects.

Separately, the Pump Act expands on legally protected breaks for workers who are nursing babies.

Put together, these provisions are aimed at addressing holes in existing law that have allowed employers in the United States to force pregnant and nursing workers to choose between a paycheck and their health, advocates say. The rules also come as the pandemic has forced employers, and the public, to reexamine how child care disproportionately affects working mothers, many of whom struggled to stay in their jobs or reenter the workforce since the pandemic upended the U.S. economy.

The measures are included in the sprawling omnibus bill that funded everything from defense spending to emergency aid for Ukraine to election reform. Provisions for working mothers aren’t expected to affect overwhelming swaths of the workforce—fewer than 2 percent of all workers in the United States are pregnant each year, according to estimates from the National Women’s Law Center. But experts say these provisions will help close the gender wage gap and improve conditions for pregnant workers, especially in physically demanding jobs—such as janitors, home health aides and waitresses—who also tend to be lower-wage workers and women of color.

“Pregnant workers were falling through the cracks with our existing laws,” said Dina Bakst, co-founder of A Better Balance, a legal advocacy nonprofit that helped draft the bill. “This is an incredible milestone for gender, racial and economic justice.”

Pregnant workers did have some legal protections from the landmark Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978, which specified that pregnant workers should be treated the same as those who are “similar in their ability or inability” to work. But under the law, workers with severe morning sickness and other serious conditions such as preeclampsia, a potentially life-threatening blood vessel disorder, have been denied pregnancy accommodations because they have been unable to identify co-workers in similar roles with the same accommodations they are asking for.

The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations for all pregnant workers, unless it would cause the employers “undue hardship.” The law is modeled after the Americans With Disabilities Act, which requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for disabled workers but doesn’t apply to most pregnant workers. Pregnancy is not considered a disability.

The new rule also prohibits companies from discriminating against job applicants, or denying them jobs altogether, on the basis of pregnancy.

“For decades, women have been fired, passed over for promotion, or forced out on leave when they become pregnant, when they simply required a modest accommodation to continue working without jeopardizing their health,” Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.), one of the leaders of the bill, said in a statement. “Guaranteeing pregnant workers reasonable accommodations will erode pernicious discrimination against pregnant women, strengthen our economy, and keep women and children healthy and safe.”

Natasha Jackson, 39, a mother in Charleston, South Carolina, said the new law will help prevent women from going through what she did. In 2008, Jackson was put on unpaid leave and ultimately terminated from her job at a national furniture leasing service after requesting to temporarily change her hours during a bout of pregnancy-induced morning sickness.

The loss of her job had a severe effect on Jackson’s finances. She was forced to back out of buying a house she had already put a down payment on. She also spent part of her pregnancy living in her car.

Jackson traveled to Washington earlier this month to push Congress to pass the bill.

“When I got the news that the law passed, I cried and cried and cried,” Jackson said. “I have two daughters and I have nieces. I am so grateful that they won’t have to choose between starting a family or keeping their jobs.”

The second provision is known as the Pump Act, short for Providing Urgent Maternal Protections for Nursing Mothers. It requires that employers designate time and space for nursing employees to pump milk during the day. Time spent pumping must also count as hours worked if employees are doing their jobs at the same time.

The Pump Act strengthens protections from 2010, which covered hourly employees for up to one year, including salaried and hourly employees for up to two years. That means an additional 9 million women will now be covered, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

Yana Rodgers, a professor of labor relations at Rutgers University School of Management, said that the new law could raise labor force participation among women by increasing their ability to advance in their career with a single employer. The 2010 law excluded many salaried and non-hourly occupations, such as teachers, nurses and farmworkers.

“If there were people who were forced to decide between continuing to work or be pregnant or nursing, it no longer needs to be that difficult choice,” Rodgers said. “People can do both.”

The measures drew bipartisan support, plus backing from workers rights groups and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. In a letter, the big business group wrote that the Pump Act would improve current law by protecting small businesses, since the rule does not apply to employers with less than 50 employees where compliance would present an “undue hardship.”

But the measures had a few critics. Speaking on the Senate floor earlier this month, Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) argued that the rules could compel employers to make accommodations “such as leave, to obtain abortions on demand under the guise of pregnancy-related conditions.”

Tillis ultimately voted in favor of the measure helping pregnant women, which got attached to the overall omnibus, after its sponsors added “clarifying language” that addressed his concerns, his office said.

Twenty-four Republican senators voted against the amendment.

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