Commentary Law and Policy

I Took My Infant Lobbying for the Rights of Pregnant Workers

Erin Matson

When you're pregnant, the last two things you want to have to worry about when you're expecting a baby are your health and your income. The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act would help ensure that pregnant women are able to follow their doctor's recommendations without worrying their bosses are going to squeeze them out of a job.

A little more than a week before she reached 5 months of age, my daughter and I were invited to participate in a lobby day hosted by the National Women’s Law Center in support of the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act.

This probably sounds cute to those who haven’t been new parents, who don’t realize how miraculous taking a shower and arriving somewhere on time can be. Who may not realize that babies do not calmly sit next to their parents while they have adult conversations, waiting for the right moment to politely request a new diaper before going back to entertaining themselves.

But I took a deep breath and said yes, because the issue of discrimination against pregnant women is important.

For 35 years, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act has prohibited sex discrimination in employment on the basis of pregnancy, but the courts have not consistently interpreted the right to minor job accommodations for pregnant workers, such as access to more bathroom breaks or a stool to sit on while working at a cash register. The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act aims to fix that by making it clear that employers should provide reasonable accommodations that allow pregnant women to continue working, such as being temporarily transferred away from heavy lifting duties.

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This isn’t to say that women need changes to their work routine during pregnancy. Many do not. But it’s not uncommon for women to develop physical conditions during pregnancy such as sciatica, which creates sharp back pain, or to have a doctor prescribe less physical activity in an effort to keep pregnancies going for women who appear to be susceptible to early delivery.

In particular, the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act stands to benefit women in lower-wage jobs that are physically demanding. Further, it’s often the case that lower-wage workers do not enjoy flexibility in their working conditions like some white-collar workers who can exert more control over their working conditions, up to the point of being able to request working from home.

This can have real consequences. A Wal-Mart worker interviewed by the National Women’s Law Center miscarried after her boss refused to transfer her from lifting heavy items off pallets. During a subsequent pregnancy, she was given the option of unpaid family medical leave rather than lighter lifting duties. The worker was ultimately fired after her doctor said filling out the Family and Medical Leave Act paperwork that Wal-Mart was asking for was not an option because she was able to work—she just needed different duties for a temporary period of time.

During the meetings I attended, I spoke to my experience as a recently pregnant person. When you’re pregnant, the last two things you want to have to worry about when you’re expecting a baby are your health and your income. The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act would help ensure that pregnant women are able to follow their doctor’s recommendations without worrying their bosses are going to squeeze them out of a job.

And the part about bringing an infant along? It worked out OK. My daughter and I stood through nearly every meeting. Before I had her, I never would have dreamed of standing through formal meetings while everyone else sat. But the simple act of standing allowed us to get through a full day without crying. Sometimes expanding the rules ever so simply is all you need to ensure the ability of childbearing women to participate in public life.

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