In more news of how slow the United States is when it comes to helping pregnant women (and not just their fetuses), Congress recently introduced a bill that would offer much-needed protection for pregnant workers. While twelve states have laws that require employers provide reasonable accommodations for pregnant workers, no such protection exists on the federal level, meaning women sometimes have to choose between the health of their pregnancies or having a job with health insurance.
The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act was introduced by Congress with bipartisan support (unheard of these days) shortly after a related Supreme Court ruling in favor of Peggy Young, a UPS employee who was forced into unpaid leave after requesting work accommodations during her pregnancy. While the ruling was a win for Young, it left many women with uncertain protection. To get those work accommodations, women must follow a lengthy and painstaking process, which basically amounts to proving employer discrimination and pregnancy bias. Yes, put the onus of proof on the discriminated party. That’s never historically been a problem. Following all those steps and proving unfair treatment also eats a lot of time, something working and pregnant women usually don’t have a lot of.
This is where the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act is supposed to help. While the Americans with Disabilities Act protects against women getting fired because of their pregnancies, it does little to prevent other forms of workplace discrimination, such as what Peggy Young faced. The ADA, for example, doesn’t mandate employers must allow pregnant workers extra bathroom breaks, a stool for the cash register or to carry a water bottle on the sales floor.
In 2008, the ADA was amended to include protections and on-the-job accommodations for disabled workers—accommodations similar to what Peggy Young was seeking. But here’s the kicker: pregnancy isn’t viewed as a disability, at least not federally. The story is a little different at the state level. Some states are enacting their own versions of the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act. And in my state of California, for example, pregnant women are entitled to short-term disability pay before and after delivery of their babies (and that doesn’t include Paid Family Leave benefits they can also get—yes, California kind of rocks).
Then again, classifying pregnancy as a disability seems like it could lead to other problems. It might add to the arsenal of politicians who already believe women’s bodies—and pregnant women’s bodies in particular—should be heavily legislated. After all, if a women is “sick” with pregnancy, perhaps she needs a good ol’ politician to tell her what she can and can’t do for the next nine months of her life. And the laundry list of activities and foods a pregnant women should avoid is broad enough. No sushi, no cold cuts, avoid caffeine, exercise but keep your heart rate below 140 (that last one is bunk, by the way)… how would labeling pregnancy a disability affect that mindset?
But for the estimated 25,000 women each year who ask for and are denied reasonable workplace accommodations, maybe the potential downsides of calling pregnancy a disability are worth it.