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Dina Bakst Headshot

States and Cities Deliver Pregnancy Fairness Laws; This Mother's Day, It's Congress's Turn

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Floralba Fernandez Espinal thought she was out of luck and out of options when she was put on unpaid leave at a New York City thrift store earlier this year. She'd handed her employer a doctor's note explaining that she could not perform heavy lifting duties because she was pregnant -- she'd had a miscarriage months earlier and her doctor did not want to risk further health problems. Her employer reacted by showing her the door.

At the time, clear legal protections for Floralba to use and push back against such manifest injustice were lacking. Losing her modest paycheck -- she was earning $8 an hour -- thrust her into a frightening position in which she could no longer pay her bills and had no idea how to provide for the child she was carrying.

Then, at the end of January, New York City's Pregnant Workers Fairness Act went into effect, which clearly spelled out the obligations employers have to keep expectant mothers healthy and safe on the job. Weeks later, Floralba was not only back at work -- reassigned to a light duty position at her Bronx thrift store -- she also collected the back pay she would have received if she had not been discriminated against in the first place.

Such is the power of the right legislation in the right place at the right time. After New York City passed its law, Philadelphia enacted a very similar bill. New legislation followed at the statewide level in New Jersey and West Virginia. A bill is headed to the Governor's desk in Minnesota. Similar statewide bills are pending in the legislatures in New York, Wisconsin, Rhode Island and Georgia, to name a few. Strikingly, these bills often sail through the legislature with near-unanimity.

Clearly, this is not a difficult vote for a majority of lawmakers once they are made aware of the stakes and see the difference it can make. It's not an inherently Democratic or Republican issue -- in a matter of months, pregnant worker protection won broad bipartisan support in several states, and was signed into law by Chris Christie, New Jersey's Republican governor, just as it was by then-New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a business-minded Independent.

My organization, A Better Balance, has been pushing for stronger legal protections for pregnant workers in every corner of this country because we've seen too many examples of workers kicked off their jobs and thrust into desperate poverty for no good reason. We have also developed model legislation with our partners and advised legislators, business leaders and advocates across the country on this issue.

Unfortunately, in too many parts of the country, lawmakers still assume that the 1978 Pregnancy Discrimination Act -- which makes it illegal for employers to discriminate against pregnant women when hiring and firing, among other things -- does enough to protect pregnant workers from unfair treatment. It does not. When tested in court, the Act has proven woefully inadequate -- it has failed to protect pregnant women requiring accommodations to stay healthy and working, accommodations routinely granted to workers with disabilities under federal law.

Why shouldn't every pregnant woman in America have the law on her side like Floralba Fernandez Espinal? Why should any expecting mother be forced to choose between critical income, or even worse, her job, and honoring her doctor's orders?

The federal Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (PWFA) would establish a national standard and put an end to this injustice. The law would make it clear that pregnant workers are entitled to reasonable accommodations for pregnancy, childbirth and related medical conditions unless it would cause undue hardship on the employer. It would afford pregnant workers, especially those in low-wage and physically demanding jobs, a clear right to ask for what they need to stay healthy and on the job.

It's long past time for Congress to examine this issue. The economic health of most American families depends on working mothers, so supporting them goes beyond basic fairness; it affects the well-being of the country as a whole. The law would strike a reasonable balance between the health needs of pregnant workers and the business needs of their employers.

Kemp Hannon, a Republican state senator in New York, put it as eloquently as anyone in a letter sent to every member of Congress last Mother's Day: "It is simply shocking and abhorrent to see and hear of women who continue to be denied equal treatment in the workplace."

His bill, and similar federal legislation, is a "necessary, simple and logical approach to ensuring equality." As another Mother's Day approaches, Congress needs to hear that message loud and clear.