As House Republicans vote on a federal ban on abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy on Tuesday, federal laws and regulations that would offer greater protections to pregnant women languish.
The restrictive House abortion bill, sponsored by Rep. Trent Franks (R-AX) is considered to be unlikely to pass in the Senate, but is indicative of the priorities of many Republican politicians, who have also enacted 32 measures in 14 states so far this year aimed at restricting abortion. Meanwhile, Sen. Bob Casey’s (D-PA) and Rep. Jerrold Nadler’s (D-NY Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (PWFA), which requires employers to offer “reasonable accommodations” to pregnant women, was referred to committee on May 14 and has yet to garner even a hearing, let alone a vote.
“Paid maternity leave seems like something people who are pro-life and want to encourage women to have children should also encourage policies that support those women as they raise those children,” Phoebe Taubman, co-author of a recently released book called Babygate: What You Really Need to Know About Pregnancy and Parenting in the American Workforce. “It comes off as contradictory but as I thought about it more, I thought well maybe it’s all actually of a piece to some extent so that people who are really anti-choice and are not at all talking about work-family, they don’t want women in the workforce to begin with.”
The PWFA responds to many concerns raised in a report released on Tuesday by the National Women’s Law Center and A Better Balance which highlights the ways many employers fail to make basic accommodations for pregnant women.
The report, “It Shouldn’t Be a Heavy Lift: Fair Treatment for Pregnant Workers,” documents how pregnant women — particularly low-wage women or women who work traditionally male jobs — often struggle to get employers to accommodate their pregnancies in basic ways, such as allowing additional bathroom breaks, giving the ability to sit rather than stand or allowing pregnant women to opt out of lifting objects on the job.
“Women make up almost half of the labor force, but all too often they are forced to make an impossible choice: risk their own health and pregnancy to keep a job or lose their income at the moment they can least afford it,” said NWLC Vice President and General Counsel Emily Martin said in an advisory. “Pregnant workers are ready, willing and able to continue working but they are often forced out by employers who refuse to make minor accommodations. These women and their families pay a steep price when they’re pushed out of jobs. There’s no reason for pregnancy to be a job-buster.”
Part of the conflict, the report argues, is that not only are women making up a greater share of the American workforce, but they are also working much later into their pregnancies than a few decades ago. “Between 1961 and 1965, less than 35 percent of working first-time mothers were still on the job one month or less before giving birth,” the report read. “Almost nine out of ten (88 percent) first-time mothers who worked while pregnant work into their last two months of pregnancy in 2006-2008, and more than eight out of ten (82 percent) worked into their last month of pregnancy.”
But the report also highlights huge gaps in legal protections. The same protections offered a disabled worker — someone who cannot lift heavy objects due to a back injury — should be covered under 2008 amendments to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), but employers often ignore this standard and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has yet to offer guidelines for the employers’ obligations under the new law. The report pointed out that the courts have also not addressed how the new amendments to the ADA and the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, which “prohibits discrimination on the basis of pregnancy and requires employers to treat pregnant women as well as they treat other employees who are ‘similar in their ability or inability to work.’”
On top of all of that, though the the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) is designed to give workers 12 weeks of unpaid leave for childbirth or to care for a new child, according Babygate authors, only about half of workers qualify for unpaid maternity leave under the FMLA. Just 16 percent of private employers offer paid maternity leave.
“We’ve also gotten a lot of calls … from pregnant women who are working at a job and simply need some small changes to their workplace to make it possible for them to continue working and stay healthy in their pregnancy, but their requests have gone either ignored or rejected and they end up losing their job or getting pushed into less desirable shifts and earning less money as a result,” Taubman said.
“It really highlights how for a professional woman who is successful like [Facebook Chief Operating Officer] Sheryl Sandberg, who — if she wants — can go marching into a CEO’s office and say, hey, it’s not fair that there’s not pregnancy parking when there’s disabled parking and we have to walk across the parking lot, let’s change that,” Taubman continued. “For a low-income woman struggling on a minimum-wage job, that can easily be filled by someone else, going in to say, I really need to be able to work during the week and not on Saturdays because I don’t have child care on Saturdays and if I did it would cost me basically my entire wage for the day, you know, she usually can’t do that without risking being fired.”
Currently New York state is considering legislation called the Women’s Equality Act, which includes protections to pregnant women, but as the Babygate authors pointed out, the problem with pregnancy law is that it can vary dramatically from state to state.
“It’s surprising to many people how much these laws vary from state to state,” Gedmark said. “So you can live in California and be eligible for up to $1,100 of temporary disability insurance when you’re out on maternity leave, or you can be entitled to nothing if you live in most states.”
She said that in states like California, which offer greater employment protections to pregnant women, a recent survey showed that some 89 percent of employers said paid family leave had no impact or a positive impact on worker productivity. This means employers are finding that “the sky hasn’t fallen” if they extend such protections, Gedmark said.
“There will be a media firestorm about some of the more prominent issues, such as the more famous corporate women talking about work-family balance, but not necessarily the regional worker that needs a water bottle or a stool to sit on that are highlighted in Babygate or in the PWFA reintroduction,” Gedmark said.
["Stock Photo: Pregnant Woman And Repair, Studio, White Background" on Shutterstock]
[Correction: This post originally said the vote was going to happen and the report was released on Wednesday.]
Kay Steiger is the managing editor of Raw Story. Her contributions have appeared in The American Prospect, The Atlantic, Campus Progress, The Guardian, In These Times, Jezebel, Religion Dispatches, RH Reality Check, and others. You can follow her on Twitter @kaysteiger.
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