For a more stable American workforce, pregnant workers need stronger protections

Over the past few decades, women have become the engine of our economy, entering the workforce in record numbers while continuing to be uniquely responsible for producing the next generation of workers. While these socio-economic changes were underway, public policy failed to create the supports needed to keep our working mothers safe.

Women are now the main breadwinners in about half of American households. In addition to this, it is estimated that 72% of working women will become pregnant during their career. And yet, in this country, pregnant women still do not have adequate protection in the workplace under the law, which promotes deep economic instability.

Far too many pregnant women continue to be fired or denied reasonable accommodations in the workplace, provisions often as simple as a stool or extra bathroom break, leaving them physically stressed and economically vulnerable.

The timing has never been more critical as maternal mortality rates reach new highs following a viral pandemic that has left pregnant workers even more vulnerable to health risks. In 2020, more than 850 pregnant women died, a 14% year-over-year increase, with black women almost three times more likely to die from maternal causes than white women. This is glaring and devastating proof that our health and labor laws do not provide adequate protection for mothers in our country.

To put a point on this, one need only refer to the volume of pregnancy discrimination litigation and complaints at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission – which has affected nearly 40,000 over the past of the past decade – to conclude that we need to strengthen and extend our current laws. More than 30 states have enacted extensive protections for pregnant workers, including Maryland, which passed the bipartisan Reasonable Accommodations for Persons with Disabilities Due to Pregnancy Act in 2013. This law has helped countless Maryland workers to receive the kind of modifications that made their pregnancy and job safe.

This state rule protects all pregnancy-related disabilities and creates the avenue through which employees can engage in constructive dialogue with their employer regarding workplace accommodations. However, many advocates have argued that the law needs to be updated and strengthened in essential ways.

“The existing law would be improved if [pregnant] women did not have to establish disability before they could be accommodated,” said Glendora Hughes, general counsel for the Maryland Civil Rights Commission, which oversees pregnancy discrimination complaints and litigation for state, during an interview with me in March.

The law should be clarified to ensure that healthy pregnancies, not just those with a “disability that contributed to or caused the pregnancy,” have full protection under the law. Pregnancy, as we all know, creates physical limitations and must be protected in the normal course of progression, to ensure that these disabilities do not arise. In addition, the updated legislation should specifically prohibit an employer from pushing a pregnant worker to take unpaid leave, when accommodation is available. These provisions have been considered, but so far state senators have failed to push these updated protections across the finish line.

It is time for our country to stand up for all working mothers.

It’s time for our nation’s lawmakers to pass the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, which would create a federal standard of protection for pregnant workers across the country and close the gaps in Maryland’s existing law. This bipartisan, bicameral bill has languished in the Senate for far too long, having been repeatedly passed by the United States House of Representatives by an overwhelming majority. Last month, Sens bill sponsors Bill Cassidy (R-La.) and Bob Casey (D-Pa.) called on their colleagues to address the issue during a webinar hosted by the Bipartisan Policy Center.

There are many ways we can come together to protect our new parents, including embracing paid parental leave, reducing the cost of child and infant care, and ensuring that every new parent has the means to feed and protect her children. But we can start with this simple protection, which has the support of the majority of representatives, would add minimal costs and red tape, and ensure that the next generation has a fighting chance.

As Cassidy so aptly observed, pregnant women “contribute to our present and carry our future.”

The health of our future is at stake.

Maggie Cordish was most recently a policy adviser to White House adviser Ivanka Trump on paid leave and family policy. She is a Fellow of the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington DC

Michael A. Bynum