Pregnant Workers Fairness Act Passes in the Senate – but What Rights Can It Ensure?

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Pregnant workers are finally one step closer to getting the rights they deserve. On Thursday, Dec. 22, the Senate voted to include the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (PWFA) in the omnibus spending package. The amendment passed 73 to 24, signaling that the years-long battle to guarantee basic accommodations for pregnant workers is almost over. The final bill will still need approval from the House and Senate, but once it’s green-lit from there it will be up to President Joe Biden’s approval.

ICYMI, this news is a major milestone. While Congress outlawed pregnancy discrimination in 1978, pregnant women have faced workplace discrimination for decades, with employers often denying them the “temporary job modifications they need to keep working and have a healthy pregnancy,” according to the ACLU. “These requests for ‘accommodations’ — such as more frequent breaks, schedule changes, and reassignment of hazardous tasks — often are denied to pregnant workers, and can result in severe consequences for their health and financial security.”

The PWFA would make acts of discrimination like this illegal and ensure pregnant workers have the resources they need to maintain a healthy pregnancy and their jobs. Also passed as an addition to the omnibus spending package was the PUMP for Nursing Mothers Act, which guarantees workers the break time they need to pump milk.

Lawmakers, citizens, and activists all took to social media to celebrate the momentous occasion. Senator Chuck Schumer tweeted, “BIG: Our amendment to pass the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act passed! Because if you are pregnant and working during your pregnancy, you should have the right to workplace accommodations. It’s one of the most significant improvements in worker protections in years.” While Michelle McGrain, director of congressional relations for the National Partnership for Women & Families tweeted, “Almost can’t believe it – the Senate just passed the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act!!!! 10 years of work into this moment that will set a new standard to #ProtectPregnantWorkers who just want to work safely throughout their pregnancy. So proud to be part of this effort!!!!”

But what exactly is secured for pregnant people in the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act? And how likely is it to pass in the House? Here’s what you need to know.

What Is the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (or PWFA)?

The PWFA is a bill that would prohibit employer discrimination against reasonable accommodations for “employees affected by pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions,” as defined in its summary. The bill ultimately aims to put a stop to the decades-long discrimination practices that pregnant women have faced in the workplace.

What Rights Does the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act Guarantee?

The rights guaranteed by the PWFA range from necessary bathroom breaks to better seating accommodations. “[I]t will no longer be the case that pregnant workers can be ousted from their jobs for simply requesting basic accommodations like permission to sit on a stool, carry a bottle of water, or take additional bathroom breaks,” Fatima Goss Graves, President and CEO of the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC) said in a statement. “The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act will make a positive impact on women’s lives – especially for those working in low-paid jobs, which are the most likely to be physically demanding and the least likely to offer flexibility to pregnant workers who need it.”

If you want to read the exact wording, as stated in the bill’s summary, the bill declares that it’s an unlawful employment practice to:

  • fail to make reasonable accommodations to known limitations of such employees unless the accommodation would impose an undue hardship on an entity’s business operation;
  • require a qualified employee affected by such condition to accept an accommodation other than any reasonable accommodation arrived at through an interactive process;
  • deny employment opportunities based on the need of the entity to make such reasonable accommodations to a qualified employee;
  • require such employees to take paid or unpaid leave if another reasonable accommodation can be provided; or
  • take adverse action in terms, conditions, or privileges of employment against a qualified employee requesting or using such reasonable accommodations.

How Likely Is It That the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act Will Pass in the House?

According to Axios, the omnibus spending plan that the PWFA is a part of “is expected to pass the Senate and head to the House for quick passage ahead of a Friday deadline.” So if all goes well, pregnant workers could be guaranteed better working conditions before Christmas!

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