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Bipartisan Pregnant Workers Fairness Act back on the legislative table

By Pamela Wolf, J.D.

In September 2020, the legislation cleared the House with a strong bipartisan vote of 329-73, but it then languished in the Senate.

On February 16, a bipartisan group of House lawmakers re-introduced the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (PWFA) (H.R. 1065) to establish a pregnant worker’s clear-cut right to reasonable workplace accommodations, provided they do not impose an undue burden on their employer. Rep. Gerald Nadler (D-N.Y.) first introduced the legislation nine years ago.

The legislation would fill the gaps in worker protections that pregnant workers face. “Current federal law does not clearly guarantee pregnant workers’ right to reasonable accommodations in the workplace—such as water, seating, bathroom breaks, and lifting restrictions,” explained House Education and Labor Committee Chairman Bobby Scott (D-Va.). “These basic protections are critical to protecting pregnant workers from the tragic consequences of unsafe working conditions, and they are particularly important today, as early evidence suggests that pregnancy leads to an elevated risk of severe illness from COVID-19.”

Pregnant Workers Fairness Act. According to its sponsors, the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act would provide that:

  • Private sector employers with more than 15 employees as well as public sector employers must make reasonable accommodations for pregnant workers (employees and job applicants with known limitations related to pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions), unless to do so imposes an undue hardship on an employer’s business (similar to the ADA);
  • Pregnant workers cannot be denied employment opportunities, retaliated against for requesting a reasonable accommodation, or forced to take paid or unpaid leave if another reasonable accommodation is available; and
  • Workers denied a reasonable accommodation under the PWFA have the same rights and remedies as those established under Title VII, including lost pay, compensatory damages, and reasonable attorneys’ fees (Public sector employees have similar relief available under the Congressional Accountability Act, Title V of the United States Code, and the Government Employee Rights Act of 1991).

Strong bipartisan support last time. In the last Congress, the bill, which is modeled after the ADA, cleared the House on September 17, 2020, by a strong bipartisan vote of 329-73. The legislation was received in the Senate the same day, read twice, and referred to committee, where it remained.

Broad support. In 2020, the legislation garnered broad support from worker advocates, civil rights groups, and the business groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which “worked extensively with advocates for this bill to find bipartisan agreement.”

“Employers currently face great uncertainty about whether, and how, they are required to accommodate pregnant workers,” the Chamber wrote in a September 14, 2020, letter to House Members. “The revised PWFA would clarify an employer’s obligation to accommodate a pregnant employee or applicant with a known limitation that interferes with her ability to perform some essential functions of her position.”

At that time the Chamber said the bill “would protect the interests of both pregnant employees and their employers.”

The PWFA’s sponsors also pointed to a recent survey of voters across the country, in which 89 percent said they support the proposal, including 81 percent of Republicans, 86 percent of Independents, and 96 percent of Democrats.

A section-by-section summary of the bill is available here.