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Our Bodies, Our Bank Accounts: Pregnant Workers Accommodations and Economic Security

Our Bodies, Our Bank Accounts: Pregnant Workers Accommodations and Economic Security

When we think of pregnant women in the workforce, the first thing that comes to mind is often maternity leave. But, maternity leave is just one piece of the complex puzzle of policies necessary to support working mothers and working families. Another critical piece of that puzzle are pregnancy accommodations—necessary to ensure that pregnant workers can keep working to support themselves and their families throughout the duration of their pregnancy.

The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (PWFA), which was introduced in the 113th Congress and which we anticipate will be reintroduced soon in the 114th, would require employers to provide reasonable, temporary accommodations to pregnant workers so that they can remain in the workforce throughout their pregnancy. These accommodations could range from reassigning a worker to a desk job if her usual job requires heavy lifting, to allowing someone to carry a water bottle on the sales floor, to accommodating a person’s need for regular pre-natal medical visits. All these accommodations are to ensure that no worker has to choose between protecting the health of her pregnancy and continuing to earn wages and benefits. Especially in the time before welcoming a new child to the family, it’s reprehensible that women are faced with this impossible choice between risking her health and earning her wages.

Today more than ever, women depend on steady employment. A record 40 percent of all households with children under the age of 18 include mothers who are either the sole or primary source of income for the family (nearly double the number from 40 years ago). Seventy percent of women with children under the age of eighteen work outside the home, and nearly 90 percent of women working full-time while pregnant choose to continue working into their last month of pregnancy.

Accommodating pregnant workers is also good for business: offering a small accommodation to a pregnant worker allows her—an already-skilled employee—to stay on the job, rather than having to find, hire, and train a new employee. There is widespread agreement among managers and business owners that keeping a worker on the job is better for business and for the economy than having to train someone new.

PWFA is not the only activity going on in the nation’s capital related to pregnancy accommodations. Young v. UPS, a case the Supreme Court heard back in December, sparked national conversation about the importance of the issue. The plaintiff, Peggy Young, was a UPS driver who became pregnant and requested a light duty accommodation according to a doctor’s advice not to lift more than 20 pounds. UPS denied Young’s request, forcing her onto unpaid leave, during which time she lost her wages and her healthcare. Even if the Court decides in Young’s favor, there would still be gaps in current law that leave women like her without key economic and health protections. Where a good decision in Young would require employers to accommodate pregnant workers based on whether or not they provide accommodations to other categories of workers, the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act would require employers provide accommodations, full stop.

The injustice of pregnancy discrimination highlights the role that economic security plays in all aspects of the lives of women and families. We are taught that “one who withholds an employee’s wages is as though he deprived him of his life” (Baba Metzia 112a). Pregnant workers who do not have the protection of pregnancy accommodations face wage withholding in the form of unpaid leave, lost benefits, or even firing—all as they are about to welcome a new child into the family. Our Jewish tradition compels us to not be complacent in the face of economic injustices, but instead to continue to advocate for policies that help to ensure economic stability for everyone in our society.