News Law and Policy

Business Groups Fight Pregnancy Accommodations in Washington State

Nicole Knight

The measure provides a series of pregnancy accommodations, including extra bathroom breaks, food and water breaks, time off for prenatal appointments, and modified work schedules.

Opposition from business interests may sink a Washington state bill that would guarantee new workplace protections for pregnant employees.

SB 6149 provides a series of accommodations for pregnant workers, including extra bathroom breaks, food and water breaks, limits on heavy lifting, time off for prenatal appointments, and modified work schedules or job restructuring.

After sailing through the Republican-led state senate last month with unanimous bipartisan support, SB 6149 has stalled amid legislative sausage making and new resistance from business groups. With the state’s legislative session scheduled to end Thursday, lawmakers must quickly reconcile the bipartisan senate bill with provisions in a slightly different house-passed version, which business groups oppose.

Failure to do so means the bill is dead this year.

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Key differences between the two versions include employer size. The state senate version applies to employers with 15 or more workers and exempts nonprofits; the house version applies to employers with eight or more workers, in accordance with state and federal disability law.

The accommodations permitted in the house version are also broader in scope, meaning the measure’s language doesn’t limit employers to a set list of “reasonable accommodations,” while the senate version does.

Bob Battles, general counsel with the Association of Washington Business, which represents local chambers of commerce, hospitals, private schools, and universities, said the group supported SB 6149 when it passed the state senate. He said this week that the legislation has become overly broad and too partisan for the group to back.

“Most businesses want to … and are already offering accommodations,” Battles told Rewire in a phone interview. “Now the question is what can we do to make it work for everyone.”

Advocates say the legislation’s basic accommodations would keep pregnant people in the workforce, so they’re not forced to choose between their livelihoods and their health. ​A national 2013 survey by the Childbirth Connection program found that the majority of pregnant workers need some form of accommodation, such as additional bathroom breaks (71 percent), time off for prenatal visits (61 percent), or a change in work duties (53 percent).

The bill’s supporters fear that the resistance from business groups will persuade legislators to reject the bill or let it die.

“What’s going to take precedence here: business interests or the well-being of women and children?” Rachel Berkson, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Washington, said Tuesday in an interview with Rewire.

“We’re just saying, ‘You passed it before, pass it again,'” Berkson said. “We’re not giving up.”

Washington state already requires employers with eight or more workers to offer leave for illness or temporary disability related to pregnancy or childbirth, but does not mandate pregnancy-related accommodations, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

Washington would join 16 states and the District of Columbia in requiring pregnancy accommodations, according to the National Partnership for Women & Families.

Patrick Connor, Washington state director with the National Federation of Independent Business, said in testimony last month before the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee that SB 6149 proposes an expansion of civil rights law that “we have every reason to believe … is more a boon to trial lawyers than it is to pregnant women seeking accommodation.”

State Sen. Karen Keiser (D-Kent), one of the bill’s original sponsors and a committee member, countered, “It’s in the civil rights arena because only women become pregnant.”

“I think if men became pregnant, this wouldn’t even be an issue,” Keiser said.

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