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State lawmakers push Pregnant Workers Fairness Act


Berkshire Eagle
By Phil Demers
pdemers@berkshireeagle.com @BE_PhilD on Twitter
POSTED:   05/18/2015 05:46:47 PM EDT

State lawmakers probably won’t wait for federal action on the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, as many — including the entire Berkshire delegation — are seeking to pass a bill requiring employers to accommodate mothers-to-be in the workplace.

Better than half of pregnant women remain in the workforce, and do so far longer than their counterparts of earlier generations; more than 80 percent work until the eighth month and some beyond.

Some employers treat working pregnant women poorly, supporters of the legislation said, forcing them to strain themselves beyond the limitations of pregnancy, and it is not unheard of for an employer to fire a woman because she is pregnant.

Worse still, this most frequently happens to low-income women, supporters said, at a time when they can afford it least, and when they find the job market unforgiving.

“Women shouldn’t have to choose between their health and having a job,” state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield, said. “With simple and reasonable accommodations, we can keep pregnant women healthy and working if they choose to. It’s hardly too much to ask.”

State Rep. Paul Mark, D-Peru, state Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli, D-Lenox, and state Sen. Benjamin B. Downing, D-Pittsfield, have also put their signatures to the proposed legislation.

The bill would forbid employers from “taking adverse action against,” denying employment to, or asking required leave of pregnant women on the job. It also requires that “reasonable accommodations” be made for pregnant employees, unless “undue hardship” can be demonstrated.

The “accommodations” Hadley nonprofit MotherWoman — the law’s biggest advocate — seeks to secure are often very simple.

They include a extra bathroom breaks, stools for sitting or an extra 15 minutes to get off one’s feet, exception from heavy lifting activities, transfer away from hazardous duties, and, after the birth, a private place to express breast milk.

“This legislation is vitally important because, currently in Massachusetts, pregnant women are losing their jobs when they ask for reasonable accommodations like an extra water bottle, a brief break, or a stool to sit on,” MotherWoman Program Director Liz Friedman said. “We know that maternal health is essential for a baby’s health. There are strong correlations between high stress and being too much on one’s feet and poor health outcomes in infants. We know Massachusetts employers want their employees to thrive in their jobs and lives. This is a perfect way to ensure that.”

Friedman added, “Besides, it’s simply the decent thing to do. Looking after pregnant women is to the benefit of us all.”

Poor treatment of pregnant employees most frequently comes at the hands of big box stores and national corporate chains, but is not limited to just that, Friedman said, adding that some small and family-run businesses are guilty of it as well.

In a press release, MotherWoman cites an example of one pregnant woman who was not allowed to take breaks even after fainting multiple times on the job; another who was fired for refusing overtime and a third supermarket employee forced onto disability leave for asking for a reprieve from heavy lifting duties.

The bill is currently in the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Labor and Workforce Development, and is expected to face only slight opposition from some anti-regulation Republicans, according to MotherWoman’s Linda Matys O’Connell.

The Supreme Court ruled this year in favor of Peggy Young, who sued the U.S. Postal Service in 2006 for placing her on leave without pay for not being able to lift heavy boxes during her pregnancy, despite co-workers being willing and able to help. The decision was sent back to a lower court and is expected to eventually lead to a federal codification of pregnant worker rights.

Contact Phil Demers at 413-496-6214.