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Pregnant and Breastfeeding Workers Get a Break
What you need to know about two landmark new laws.
When my son was around 8 months old, I took a new job. I didn’t ask about breast-pumping, because I naively assumed it wouldn’t be a problem. When it was time to put my electric pump to use, my flustered boss pointed me in the direction of a tiny room with no outlet. I pumped in the bathroom instead.
There wasn’t much I could do about it at the time. Pregnant and breastfeeding employees have historically had meager protections under the law—but not anymore.
Thanks to two new laws that go into effect this year, the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act and the PUMP Act, employers will be required to provide pregnant and breastfeeding workers with the accommodations they need. And if they don’t, employees will have a better shot at winning a discrimination case.
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The new laws improve on previous protections, which often varied state to state, left out a significant chunk of the workforce and made it challenging for employees to sue.
In December of last year, Congress passed the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, legislation that has been heralded as a “landmark civil rights law” by women’s and workers’ advocacy groups.
“The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act says that employers now need to provide reasonable accommodations for limitations related to pregnancy, childbirth, and other related medical conditions like lactation, so long as those accommodations don't impose an undue hardship, meaning they wouldn't be really difficult or really expensive for the employer to provide,” says Sarah Brafman, national policy director for A Better Balance, a national nonprofit organization that advocates for caregivers and workers.
It’s a crucial improvement over previous federal protections for pregnant women provided under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act.
“The reason that this is such an exciting new law is because prior to the passage of this law, pregnant and postpartum workers didn't have an explicit right to [accommodations] at work, unless they could show they had a disability related to their pregnancy,” Brafman explains. “And if they didn't have a disability related to their pregnancy, they needed to be able to show that other people were getting accommodations in their workplace in order to merit their own.”
It was a high bar that was, in many cases, insurmountable. A report by A Better Balance found that workers were losing over two-thirds of the pregnancy accommodation cases brought under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, in large part because it was difficult to provide proof that other workers were receiving accommodations. And many courts were finding that needs related to pregnancy didn’t qualify as disabilities.
Brafman says her organization has seen pregnant workers denied a stool to sit on, help with lifting heavy boxes, food breaks, water breaks, bathroom breaks, and time off to attend prenatal and postnatal appointments.
The PWFA, which goes into effect on June 27, is also designed to prevent employers from sidelining pregnant workers. A 2018 investigation by The New York Times found that pregnancy discrimination was “rampant” at America’s biggest companies, and that pregnant employees were routinely denied reasonable accommodations, passed over for promotions and fired for complaining. The PWFA states explicitly that employers can’t retaliate against a worker for needing, requesting, or using a reasonable accommodation, and an employer also can’t force an accommodation on an employee when it isn’t wanted or needed. An employer can’t make a pregnant employee work a reduced schedule or stop traveling for work, for example.
In addition to protections for pregnant workers, Congress also passed the PUMP Act, legislation that ensures more moms receive time and space for breast-pumping at work.
While many employers have expanded their benefits for breastfeeding moms in recent years, by creating comfy lactation lounges and even paying for breastmilk shipping, they weren’t always legally required to provide time and space for breast-pumping. That’s because the Break Time for Nursing Mothers Act, which passed in 2010 as part of the Affordable Care Act, only required employers to provide time and space for breast-pumping to workers who were eligible for overtime. Salaried employees weren’t covered under the law.
“Nine million people of childbearing age who weren't protected under the law before now have reasonable break time and space protections,” Brafman explains.
Beginning on April 28, The PUMP Act also makes it possible for an employee to file a lawsuit against an employer that violates the law. Previously, breastfeeding moms had little recourse if their employer prevented them from pumping on the job, or didn’t provide a suitable spot, because they weren’t able to seek a monetary remedy in court.
Together, the two laws will provide much-needed workplace improvements for pregnant and breastfeeding women, but there’s still plenty of room for more, Brafman says, pointing to paid family leave, paid sick leave, and access to child care.
“The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act and PUMP Act were historic Civil Rights and labor laws, and they are foundational to creating supportive workplace environments, but they are by no means the end of the road for protections for pregnant and lactating workers.”
If your employer doesn’t comply with the new laws, reach out to A Better Balance at 1-833-NEED-ABB (1-833-633-3222). The organization offers a free and confidential legal helpline.
Join us at noon on March 14 for this crucial conversation, and learn how your company can personalize the employee experience. Register here: https://us06web.zoom.us/meeting/register/tZMrc-msqT8vHNF-RQW0lzp8cvUkK6DN0YAZ.
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