Vania Leveille & Mike Garvey
In 2015, Michelle Durham, an American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) client, was faced with an impossible choice: continue working and risk the health of her pregnancy or give up her paycheck.
She was working as an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) for Rural/Metro Corporation, a company in Alabama that provides emergency medical care to people living in areas that lack basic medical services. Shortly after joining Rural/Metro Corporation in Alabama, Michelle learned she was pregnant with her first child and was advised by her health professional not to lift more than 50 pounds. She was confident the company would grant her a temporary reassignment, given her employer had a policy of giving “light duty” or “modified duty” job assignments to EMTs when they had lifting restrictions, like a back injury, and dispatcher jobs were available.
Instead, her manager told her that the company only provided such accommodations to EMTs injured while working. The company wouldn’t allow Michelle to continue working as an EMT, forcing her to take an unpaid leave of absence. The news was shattering. As Michelle said:
I was stunned. At that point, I was about six months away from my due date. How was I supposed to live for six months without a paycheck? How could I buy what I needed to prepare for my baby’s arrival? How would I support my son after he was born?
As a result, Michelle was unemployed for seven months, moved in with her grandmother, and accrued credit and medical debt. With so few emergency care jobs in her community, Michelle’s nascent EMT career ended the day Rural/Metro put her on leave.
Unfortunately, Michelle’s story isn’t isolated or unique. Too many pregnant workers continue to face insurmountable obstacles in their workplaces, where employers misunderstand their obligations, and in courtrooms, where judges hinder access to needed accommodations. Despite the clear mandates of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, the current legal landscape leaves pregnant workers who want to continue working while maintaining a healthy pregnancy exposed and unprotected.
Michelle illustrated this problem in powerful testimony during an October 2019 hearing on the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (PWFA), legislation that would ensure pregnant workers are no longer denied reasonable accommodations.
This week, the House Committee on Education and Labor will move us one step closer to eliminating this form of pregnancy discrimination by holding, for the very first time, a markup and vote on the bipartisan Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (H.R. 2694). This long overdue legislation would protect the health and economic security of workers who, too often, are penalized because of their pregnancy.
Despite the passage of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act more than 40 years ago, we know that discrimination persists and manifests in myriad ways, including through policies that grant some workers a temporary job modification but deny that same accommodation to a pregnant worker with medical needs. This discriminatory treatment overwhelmingly impacts women in low wage, physically demanding, or male-dominated jobs. When pregnant workers are forced to quit, coerced into taking unpaid leave, or fired because their employer refuses to provide a temporary job modification, the economic impact can be severe; if they are the sole or primary breadwinner for their children, as nearly half of working women are, their entire family will be without an income when it is needed most.
That is why passing PWFA is a dire necessity. The bill would make clear that employers must provide reasonable accommodations for pregnant employees – like a stool to sit on, a schedule change, or a break from lifting heavy boxes – unless doing so would place an undue burden on the business. This is a framework modeled after the Americans with Disabilities Act and one which employers are very familiar with.
PWFA also promotes women’s health. Accommodations make a difference in physically demanding jobs (requiring long hours, standing, lifting heavy objects, etc.) where the risk of preterm delivery and low birth weight are significant. The failure to provide accommodations can be linked to miscarriages and premature babies who suffer from a variety of ailments. This bill would be an important contribution in the fight to improve maternal and infant health and mortality.
Providing pregnant workers with temporary and reasonable accommodations is a thoughtful, measured, and necessary approach that has been adopted in 27 states – red, blue and purple – across the country. It’s time for members of Congress to act in the best interests of their constituents and ensure that no pregnant worker will have to choose between a healthy pregnancy and a paycheck that supports their family.
It’s time for Congress to pass the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act.
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