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By Emily Martin, Vice President and General Counsel, and Liz Watson, Senior Advisor, National Women's Law Center
Cross-Posted from NWLC's blog, Womenstake

Heather got fired from Wal-mart for carrying a water bottle.

Natasha was forced onto unpaid leave and then fired because her district manager at Rent-A-Center found out she needed help with occasional heavy lifting on the sales floor.

Sarah* lost her job at a fast food restaurant for taking bathroom and water breaks.

What do all of these women have in common? They were all pregnant.

All they needed were minor adjustments to continue safely working during pregnancy.  They didn’t get these adjustments.  And they all lost their jobs because of it.

The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act would put an end to this absurdity. Senators Bob Casey and Jeanne Shaheen will introduce the bill in the U.S. Senate today. Representative Jerrold Nadler introduced the PWFA in the U.S. House of Representatives in May, and it now has more than 100 co-sponsors. Public health organizations, business organizations, women’s organizations, worker organizations, and religious groups have lined up in support as well.

The PWFA would make it illegal to fire a pregnant employee who requests a reasonable accommodation – such as a water break, bathroom break, or modification of a lifting requirement. Pregnant workers would have the same rights to temporary accommodations on the job that are available to workers with disabilities.

Why do we need this bill? Stories like the ones above sound like they are from the Dark Ages, right? Before the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 made it illegal to discriminate against pregnant workers, women were expected to quit their jobs when they became pregnant. Back then, pregnancy was widely regarded as a disabling condition.

Today, about five percent of women in the workforce are pregnant in any given year. The majority of families rely on women’s incomes to stay afloat. It is now a well-accepted fact that most women remain perfectly healthy and able to work throughout their pregnancies.

Yet pregnant women who need minor workplace accommodations are still being forced out of the workplace.

When women have challenged these practices in court, more often than not they’ve lost. Most courts have held that while the Pregnancy Discrimination Act prohibits employers from treating pregnant women worse than men, it does not require them to provide accommodations for pregnant workers.

As a result, expectant mothers are losing their jobs and more.

Shelly* gave her employer a doctor’s note saying she shouldn’t lift more than twenty pounds. Her employer refused to allow her to move to an aisle in the store where she could stock lighter items. She miscarried following a shift doing heavy lifting. Then she was fired. In Shelly’s words, the experience “destroyed my life, ruined my health, and ruined my marriage.”

Providing accommodations isn’t just good for pregnant workers and their families: it’s good for business. Here’s what one Pennsylvania employer said in a letter supporting the bill:

“We routinely provide light duty work assignments or other necessary accommodations to our male employees who sustain minor back or other injuries on the jobs. There is clearly no justification for treating our female employees differently. Our track record of success accommodating people with disabilities gives us confidence that pregnancy, which is only a temporary condition, can also be successfully accommodated. The value of our human resource capital is an important component of our overall business success. [ . . . ] The expense of hiring and training new staff is much more costly than finding ways to accommodate and keep valued employees. [ . . . ] Eastern Utility Contracting, Inc. supports the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act[.]”

We need 21st century laws for a 21st century workforce. There is no justification for forcing expectant mothers off the job at the time when they most need income to provide for their growing families. Let’s put the Dark Ages behind us. Click here to urge your Senator to cosponsor the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act.

*These names were changed to protect the anonymity of the workers involved.

Originally posted to National Women's Law Center on Wed Sep 19, 2012 at 10:44 AM PDT.

Also republished by DKos Pennsylvania and Feminism, Pro-Feminism, Womanism: Feminist Issues, Ideas, & Activism.

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