April 10, 2019; Truthout
Another small milestone in the movement toward family-friendly workplaces comes quietly at the start of Black Maternal Health Week, as Kentucky becomes the 25th state to pass legislation supporting pregnant employees. A federal bill that would set a national standard has been stalled in Congress for almost five years.
According to Truthout’s Bryce Covert, the victory on Tuesday illustrated the power of advocacy and coalition-building among nonprofits, unions, and business groups. The five-year campaign for the new law was supported by a relatively new national nonprofit called A Better Balance, which aims to “promote equality and expand choices for women and men at all income levels so they may care for their families without sacrificing their economic security.”
As Covert writes, “The state’s law will require employers to engage in conversations with pregnant employees about potential accommodations they may need to stay healthy and at work during their pregnancies, and to offer changes to them unless doing so would present an undue hardship.”
It’s progress that is past due; a New York Times report earlier this year found that pregnancy discrimination is rampant inside the country’s biggest companies, causing women to be fired or passed over for promotion if they ask for even simple accommodations during pregnancy. Times reporters Natalie Kitroeff and Jessica Silver-Greenberg write:
The number of pregnancy discrimination claims filed annually with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has been steadily rising for two decades and is hovering near an all-time high…tens of thousands of women have taken legal action alleging pregnancy discrimination at companies including Walmart, Merck, AT&T, Whole Foods, 21st Century Fox, KPMG, Novartis and the law firm Morrison & Foerster. All of those companies boast on their websites about celebrating and empowering women.
The Times story follows a related investigation last year by the same reporters that showed that women in strenuous jobs lost their pregnancies to miscarriages after employers denied their requests for light duty. The 40-year-old Pregnancy Discrimination Act contains a lot of loopholes, which make the protections it provides often far from adequate. As Kitroeff and Silver-Greenberg point out, the law “says that a company has to accommodate pregnant workers’ requests only if it is already doing so for other employees who are ‘similar in their ability or inability to work.’” They add, that “Under federal law, companies don’t necessarily have to adjust pregnant women’s jobs, even when lighter work is available and their doctors send letters urging a reprieve.”
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According to Truthout, Kentucky’s law also covers postpartum parents who are breastfeeding at work. (Lactation rooms and other accommodations are another area where progress is being made state-by-state.) Covert writes that Tennessee could be next on the list to enact protections for pregnancy:
There are still 25 states that don’t have their own versions of this law, where employees and employers alike face a murky legal landscape around pregnancy accommodation at work. A Better Balance has been actively involved in advocating for a bill in Tennessee, and there are other, earlier stage campaigns in other places. Many legislative sessions have already ended for this year, but advocates are gearing up for a strong offense in 2020.
The National Partnership for Women & Families has a full list of the states—and four cities—that have already passed the Pregnant Workers Fairness legislation, modeled on the Americans with Disabilities Act, here.
The expansion of laws protecting pregnant and postpartum workers should be seen as positive not only for families but also for employers. At a time when unemployment is at an historic low, the changes are a reminder for nonprofits to treat employees the same way we advocate for our clients to be treated.
Further, maternal health—which is appallingly poor in the US for such a “wealthy” country—is yet another issue shaped by a history of racial inequality. As Harvard Public Health notes, maternal mortality has become a human rights crisis in America:
Following decades of decline, maternal deaths began to rise in the United States around 1990—a significant departure from the world’s other affluent countries. By 2013, rates had more than doubled. The CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] now estimates that 700 to 900 new and expectant mothers die in the US each year, and an additional 500,000 women experience life-threatening postpartum complications. More than half of these deaths and near deaths are from preventable causes, and a disproportionate number of the women suffering are black.
Another beacon of hope? On Tuesday, two Democratic members of Congress announced the establishment of the Black Maternal Health Caucus. Perhaps the new coalition can push the ball further down the field.—Anna Berry