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Worse Treatment for Pregnant Workers: It’s Ironic, Don’t You Think?

Arjun Sethi and NWLC’s recent article on CNN.com describes pregnant workers’ struggles to hold onto their jobs and have healthy pregnancies, after their requests for minor adjustments to their job duties – adjustments they needed to continue safely working during pregnancy – were denied by their employers. These workers had the audacity to ask for permission to: carry a water bottle, have a stool to sit down, avoid lifting heavy objects, and take bathroom breaks.

For those of us who are lucky enough to work in places that routinely accommodate such requests, or where we don’t have to ask to go to the bathroom or get a drink of water, it can be hard to imagine what it’s like to be pregnant and get fired for following doctor’s orders to stay hydrated, off our feet or follow a lifting restriction.

But that’s exactly what’s happening to some pregnant workers in physically demanding and nontraditional jobs. All too often, employers are quite willing to provide an accommodation to a worker who is injured on the job or has a disability, but insist on denying an accommodation to a pregnant worker.

And too many courts across the country have mistakenly held that failing to provide a simple accommodation needed by a pregnant worker does not violate the law.

These holdings run counter to the purpose and intent of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 – which requires pregnant workers to be treated at least as well as other workers who are similar in their ability or inability to work.

It’s more than a little ironic that employers would willingly provide accommodations to workers with a range of other needs, but deny them to pregnant workers. It’s downright irrational.

The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act would restore rationality to the workplace by creating an unmistakably clear legal requirement to accommodate pregnant workers who need reasonable accommodations to continue safely working during pregnancy. The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act borrows the reasonable accommodation language and employer defense of undue hardship from the Americans with Disabilities Act, a time-tested law for which the business community has expressed its support.

It’s time to close the massive loophole that courts have opened up in the Pregnancy Discrimination Act. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission should issue guidance for employers and the courts on the duty to accommodate pregnant workers under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act; courts should enforce the Pregnancy Discrimination Act’s requirement to treat pregnant workers the same as other workers who are similar in their ability or inability to work; and Congress should pass The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act.

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