This week, the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act will take effect. The federal law, signed by President Joe Biden at the end of 2022, is a mandate for companies with more than 15 employees to make reasonable accommodations for their pregnant workers. It will also benefit those who have recently given birth.
“This is really a groundbreaking moment, especially for workers in low-wage industries in physically demanding jobs in male-dominated workplaces where we have seen really egregious pregnancy discrimination,” Sarah Brafman told Axios. She’s the national policy director at A Better Balance, a legal advocacy organization that led the effort to get the law passed.
And indeed, many pregnant people have long been put in positions of choosing between income and safety. But now, the PWFA will enforce a range of accommodations, from modifying workloads – for example, allowing pregnant warehouse workers to forgo heavy lifting – to creating spaces where workers can pump breast milk. The law also includes time-off provisions for both prenatal and postpartum doctor visits.
In a release, the Biden administration referred to these as “basic [and] long-overdue protections.” Prior to this, the only law on the books regarding accommodations for pregnant workers was the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978. That law made pregnancy-related discrimination illegal, but failed to provide the specific protections now offered by the new act.
“When I tell people about the PWFA’s enactment, most are surprised: Didn’t the law already require employers to assure pregnant workers could keep working safely, they ask?” says ACLU senior staff attorney Gillian Thomas. “The answer — well, yes and no — reflects decades of disagreement among judges, legislators and advocates about how to define ‘equality’ when it comes to the distinct medical reality of pregnancy.”
This new law will benefit women in particular, as roughly 70% of pregnant women in a given year are employed while carrying their children to term – allowing a portion of the American workforce traditionally held back from employment due to myriad inequities to remain on-the-job. But both transgender and nonbinary workers will benefit from the PWFA, too, experts say.
Such legislation is especially critical now, in a post-Roe world where abortion access is significantly limited in numerous states – if not outlawed entirely. But it was needed before the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the landmark decision, experts add.
Noted Thomas to Axios, “Literally millions of people every year are going to be able to have healthy pregnancies and keep earning a paycheck.”