The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act Just Passed. Here’s What You Need to Know.

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During her first pregnancy, Carla Graham didn’t know what to expect.

The Alexandria resident noted changes in her body and needs, which meant making changes in the workplace. Working as an executive assistant in Old Town, Graham got up often to use the restroom, ate frequent snacks and went on walks around the office when her body felt stiff.

“Just trying to make sure I was taking care of myself and doing what I had to do so that I didn’t have issues was just really important,” she says.

Graham believes that workplaces should adapt to the needs of pregnant workers. She is the co-president of the Alexandria chapter of Mocha Moms, a support organization for mothers of color.

“I always tell people if a smoker can get a break, then you definitely should get a break as a pregnant person,” she says.

Graham’s boss, a father himself, was understanding, allowing Graham to make changes to her routine as needed. But nine years ago, when Graham had her first child, it wasn’t a guarantee that her boss would offer those accommodations, let alone be obligated to by law.

Until very recently, U.S. federal protections weren’t in place to ensure pregnant workers received accommodations in the workplace. That changed last month.

On June 27, the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act was enacted, having been signed into law by President Joe Biden on Dec. 9, requiring employers to give “reasonable accommodations” to pregnant workers with limitations due to pregnancy, childbirth or medical complications from pregnancy. Now that the law is in place, what does this mean for pregnant workers? Why is the law important? Read on to find out.

What is the significance of the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act?

Before the PWFA, there were federal laws in place that prevented pregnant workers from being fired or discriminated against for being pregnant. However, only 30 states had laws that required employers to provide reasonable accommodations for those pregnant workers. Now, the PWFA requires employers in all 50 states to accommodate pregnant workers.

In practice, this means that employees are required to let pregnant workers carry a water bottle at work, take extra bathroom breaks or change around their work schedule, work from home or telework.

“These are all things that some pregnant workers had access to before this,” says Sharyn Tejani, associate legal counsel of the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which investigates job discrimination cases. “But now there’s a nationwide law, and all workers who work for covered employers will be able to at least ask for these [accommodations].”

For workers on their feet all day, such as in food service or retail jobs, earning an hourly wage, this law is particularly relevant, Tejani says.

What’s a reasonable accommodation?

This law doesn’t mean that a pregnant worker can ask for special privileges at work. Accommodations cannot put “undue hardship” on employers, according to Tejani. Undue hardships can include significant expenses.

For example, if there are two clerks working in an office, and one is pregnant and requests to come into the office later, the employer may not be able to grant the worker the request because it would heavily burden the other clerk having to cover their hours. Instead, the employer could offer the pregnant employee opportunities to take breaks or work sitting down.

“It’s really dependent on the employer and the worker,” Tejani says. “And it is a high standard.”

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What protections did pregnant workers have previously?

Pregnant workers did have some protections prior to the PWFA, but they were limited. Under Title VII, passed in 1964, employers were not allowed to discriminate based on sex. However, sex isn’t the same thing as the condition of pregnancy, and Title VII was amended in the 1970s to cover discrimination based on pregnancy, childbirth and pregnancy-related medical conditions.

For workplace accommodations, pregnant workers previously relied on the Americans with Disabilities Act, passed in 1990, which gave workers with disabilities the opportunities to seek accommodations. However, pregnancy, while associated with medical conditions that can cause disability, isn’t a disability by itself.

For some pregnant workers, it’s hard to make a case for a disability through the ADA, says Kwabena Owusu-Koduah, an associate at the Law Firm of J.W. Stafford, which specializes in employment law in Maryland and Washington, D.C.

Owusu-Koduah had a case where a pregnant grocery store worker was unable to stand for extended periods of time, and she had a parking spot far away from the store’s entrance. She did not file a complaint through the ADA and did not receive a note from her doctor about accommodations for her condition. There was a chance she could have been forced to take leave with lower or no pay.

“The PWFA would have helped us in the sense that it would have been another claim where we could have said, ‘Hey, by the mere fact that she’s pregnant, she has these
limitations,’” Owuwu-Koduah says.

According to the attorney, Maryland has the Fair Employment Practices Act and Title XX, but both resemble federal laws in place providing workplace protections. Generally, Washington, D.C. has wider protections in place regarding pregnant workers’ rights, he says.

The PWFA cuts out much of the bureaucracy and administrative tasks needed to receive accommodations.

What are some limitations of the PWFA?

The PWFA applies to “covered” employers, which means those in the public or private sector that have 15 or more employees. It also applies to “Congress, Federal agencies, employment agencies, and labor organizations,” according to the EEOC.

“Very small employers are not covered by this,” Tejani says. Neither are independent contract workers.

How does someone invoke the PWFA?

Pregnant workers do not have to explicitly mention the PWFA when requesting accommodations in the workplace. They simply need to state their requests, underlying the importance of workers advocating for themselves.

“Always advocate for yourself,” Graham adds. “You don’t want to get into a situation where it could have been something simple that you took care of yourself or that you were able to do to keep you from having a serious issue.” 


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