In December 2022, civil rights organizations, women’s rights advocates, labor unions, and also (perhaps, to some, surprisingly) the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other leading business organizations celebrated the passage of a major new federal civil rights statute: the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (PWFA). The PWFA requires that employers provide “reasonable accommodations” for workers affected by a pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions unless doing so would be an “undue hardship.” This standard, borrowed from federal disability law, will help ensure that pregnant workers can receive the support they need at work. It makes good on a simple promise: No one should have to choose between their job and a healthy pregnancy.
Prior Law Frequently Denied Pregnant Workers Accommodations
Each year, about 250,000 pregnant workers make requests for workplace accommodations that are denied. Many simply ask for minor changes to work rules, such as being allowed to sit on a stool, carry a water bottle, have snacks at a workstation, or take extra restroom breaks. Some request to be excused from lifting heavy objects or seek to reduce their exposure to potentially harmful chemicals. Others ask for time off to attend prenatal appointments or for childbirth and postpartum recovery.
In many white-collar and professional workplaces, employees can make such adjustments to their work environment or work time without seeking formal approval, or even conceptualizing the change as an “accommodation.” By contrast, companies often tightly regulate all aspects of low-wage blue-collar, pink-collar, and service work. Thus, even small modifications may require a formal accommodation request.
Prior to the enactment of the PWFA, federal sex discrimination and federal disability laws sometimes required such accommodations, but the standards under these laws were confusing to both employers and workers. In the absence of clear federal guidelines, about half of the states had passed laws that generally required reasonable accommodations for pregnancy, but each was a little different from the next. The result was widespread confusion—and many pregnant workers were fired, forced into unpaid leave, or compelled to quit because they could not get the support they needed.
When pregnant workers lose their jobs, they and their families suffer. More than 40 percent of mothers are the primary or sole breadwinners for their families, and an additional quarter of mothers provide 25 to 49 percent of household income. Pregnant workers who were fired or quit often also lost their employer-provided health insurance, which could mean they would need to pay tens of thousands of dollars in medical expenses associated with childbirth.