Proposed law would protect pregnant workers

 

Greenfield Recorder 05/09/2015, Page A01

By CHRIS CURTIS Recorder Staff

Everyone appreciates mothers on Mother’s Day, but proponents of a bill now making its way through the Legislature aim to extend that to protect the rights of pregnant workers.

The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act would require employers to make reasonable accommodations for pregnant workers. Proponents say existing protections for pregnant employees, mainly in the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, are insufficient and wrong-headed.

“Pregnancy is not a disability, it is a natural act that happens to many women in their lifetime, it shouldn’t need to be qualified as a disability in order to be protected,” said State Rep. Ellen Story.

The Amherst Democrat is the primary sponsor of the bill at the House level — taking up the fight after Hadley-based women and families’ advocacy organi­zation MotherWoman brought the issue to her attention.

“The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act covers typical situations that pregnant workers find themselves in that wouldn’t be covered by disability status,” said MotherWoman Program Director Liz Friedman. “Things like: mom needs to use the bathroom more frequently, mom needs to hydrate more often, mom needs to not lift heavy loads, not be up a high ladder, not be exposed to toxicity in the workplace.”

Introduced this year, House Bill 1769 is now with the committee on Labor and Workforce Development.

Among other backers, it has the support of the Massachusetts chapter of the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

Springfield obstetrician and chairman of the chapter’s legislative committee Dr. James K.C. Wang Jr. said normal pregnancy requires only minor accommodations, which are nevertheless sometimes denied.

Wang said he commonly writes doctors’ notes for minor requests, and sometimes it isn’t enough.

“I had a patient who was a cashier and we requested that she be able to sit while she was at the register, and they said ‘No … if you can’t stand you can’t work,’ which really didn’t make sense to us,” Wang said. The decision then becomes working with swollen feet and a sore back in the third trimester, or leaving a job.

Similar to legislation in other states and an act stalled at the national level, the bill would add pregnant or recently pregnant women to the state anti-discrimination statute. It is intended to enshrine what proponents say are small, common-sense allowances for pregnant employees and new mothers; the right to carry a water bottle, sit down to rest, take more frequent bathroom breaks, pump breast milk somewhere clean. Wronged employees would have recourse to the courts, which Story said she hopes will prove unnecessary.

MotherWoman says women have lost jobs over such requests in Massachusetts, giving the example of a Westfield woman who left her job as a gas station assistant manager in 2009 after her employer ignored her requests for a stool and to be relieved of heavy lifting.

“Jenn,” a Northampton mother who worked in school administration, described her experience on condition of anonymity because she fears retaliation from her former employer. Jenn said she told a supervisor she might be a few minutes late or need to leave a meeting for a bathroom break on occasion, and was told to work facing a clock and be at all meetings on time. A year and a half later, she told her supervisor that she had miscarried and would be out briefly for surgery. “She got up from her desk and started yelling at me and demanded to know how many kids I was planning to have, as it would affect her projects,” she said. “She told me that I was a burden and a hardship for my pregnancies. Here my baby had just died inside me and my boss was screaming at me.”

Complaints to human resources and management went nowhere, and she left. She believes she was lucky, in that her skill set and education meant a new job. She believes the Fairness Act will be an important protection, especially for lower-income and more vulnerable workers. Laura Maycock, a certified nurse midwife with Pioneer Women’s Health in Greenfield, said loss of employment is an extreme case and one she hasn’t yet seen in her practice. What she does commonly see are women facing some degree of resistance from employers. From what she has read, Maycock said the bill seems like a good idea. “Pregnancy is not an illness, you can continue to go about your life in many ways, but there are also undeniable anatomical and physiological changes that happen that make it a lot harder to do certain things, so it’s important to balance those two concepts and give women the flexibility to do what’s comfortable for them and what’s safe,” Maycock said.

Maycock said midwives provide letters for women who either meet resistance or are uncomfortable asking for accommodation. For her, that’s about once a week. Little things like carrying a water bottle can make a big difference, she said, with dehydration risking pre-term contractions or bladder infections.

Story is optimistic about the bill’s chances. “It has a lot of co-sponsors. I think it would be hard to be publicly against an act for pregnancy fairness,” Story said. The bill has the backing of 62 petitioners in the House of Representatives including, locally, 1st Franklin Rep. Stephen Kulik, D-Worthington, and 2nd Berkshire Rep. Paul Mark, D-Peru.

She hopes the bill will be signed into law before the end of the legislative session, in December 2016.

You can reach Chris Curtis at: ccurtis@recorder.comor 413-772-0261, ext. 257