The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (PWFA), which requires employers to give pregnant women reasonable accommodations like more frequent breaks or a stool to sit on, has been introduced in Congress three times—but now, for the first time, it is bipartisan.
Sens. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) and Dean Heller (R-NV) signed on as co-sponsors to the bill in the Senate last month, and on Wednesday Rep. Mike Coffman (R-CO) became the first Republican to co-sponsor the bill in the House. No Republicans have co-sponsored the bill in either chamber before this year.
“Women should never worry about losing their job simply because they’re pregnant,” Coffman said in a statement.
The PWFA would make it illegal for an employer to fire or deny opportunities to a pregnant woman without offering reasonable accommodations, unless it would be an undue burden on the employer.
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The PWFA would strengthen the protections women have under the 1978 Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA), which made it illegal to discriminate based on pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions, and which required employers to treat pregnant workers the same as non-pregnant workers who have a similar ability to work.
Despite these protections, employers commonly refuse to make slight changes that would help pregnant women keep working. As a result, women are forced out of their jobs, forced to take unpaid leave, or otherwise discriminated against because of something as simple as needing to carry a water bottle.
The new bipartisan support for the bill is “exciting,” but it’s “sort of surprising that it’s taken this long” for Republicans to join, Emily Martin, vice president and general counsel at the National Women’s Law Center, told Rewire.
There are several reasons why this might be happening, Martin said, and why there might be reason to see more supporters of the bill from both sides in the near future.
First of all, the issue has substantial momentum at the state level. Blue, red, and purple states alike—including West Virginia, Nebraska, North Dakota, New Jersey, and New York—have passed the bill with bipartisan support, often unanimously.
Second, the Supreme Court’s ruling in favor of Peggy Young against her former employer UPS may have put the subject on people’s radars when it wasn’t before. Young sued UPS after the company refused her request for light duty and forced her to take unpaid leave during her pregnancy, causing her to lose her health insurance when she most needed it.
The Supreme Court sent Young’s case back to a lower court and said she could win if she could show that UPS accommodates “a large percentage of non-pregnant workers while failing to accommodate a large percentage of pregnant workers.”
That’s still a significant limitation, Martin says. It leaves questions like, What’s a large percentage? How is Young as an individual worker supposed to access that information about other workers, pregnant or non-pregnant?
The PWFA is much more straightforward, Martin said, and it seems that some Republicans as well as Democrats realized that the Supreme Court’s ruling left significant uncertainty for both workers and employers.
The PWFA also has the benefit of treating pregnancy as its own condition, instead of requiring that it be compared with other disabilities.
“It focuses on the needs of the pregnant worker, rather than going out and searching for some non-pregnant identical twin,” Martin said.