PITTSFIELD, Mass — The state's House of Representatives passed a bill Wednesday shoring up the rights of pregnant workers.
The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act will require employers to provide basic accommodations for employees who are pregnant or are new mothers. Such provisions include allowing pregnant woman to take more frequent bathroom breaks, drink water while they work, or provided a stool to sit on.
"One of the holes we had in the protections was for women who are pregnant and employers, a small percentage of employers, who do not allow for any kind of accommodation for someone who is pregnant, or, quite frankly, retaliating against women who are pregnant," state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield, said.
It also makes it illegal for employers to take "adverse action against" a pregnant woman asking for "reasonable accommodation" or to deny employment because of those or require employees to accept provisions they believe are unneeded. Employers also cannot make a woman take a leave of absence if another reasonable accommodation can be provided, or refuse to hire a pregnant woman if she has the ability to do the job.
Farley-Bouvier retold a story of a certified nursing assistant who got pregnant and her employer assigned her to rooms with combative patients or patients with shingles in an attempt to make her quit.
"They could have easily not assigned her those rooms but that employer was trying to force her out by doing that," the lawmaker said.
Another woman, Alejandra Duarte, testified before theJoint Committee on Labor and Workforce Development about the difficulties she'd had with a pregnancy nearly a decade ago. She had asked for assignments at her laundry job in Worcester that would not require her to lift items as much. Instead, she was given more difficult jobs, her schedule was changed to make the work more difficult, and was given additional assignments. She couldn't afford to leave her job and miscarried.
Farley-Bouvier said she's heard similar stories in many industries and job levels. Over the decades, the number of pregnant woman in the workforce has grown and more and more are working later into pregnancy.
"We have laws for disabilities but pregnancy in itself isn't a disability. You don't want to call pregnancy a disability. This allows for some specific, easy, low-impact accommodations and not imposing an undue hardship," Farley-Bouvier said.
The law outlines that more frequent breaks, seating, limits on lifting be provided and that further accommodations can be required with documentation from a health care provider.
"The employee still has to be able to perform essential functions, that's the legal term," Farley-Bouvier said.
Additionally, the bill provides provisions for new mothers to be given the time and space to nurse.
"It has protections around lactation. That can be a pretty tricky thing because the choice to nurse your child or not is a choice. But, not having an accommodation at your workplace should not be a reason that you don't choose to nurse your baby," Farley-Bouvier said.
"To be able to provide time and a private place to be able to nurse or pump is included in this bill."
Farley-Bouvier added that employers advocated to have those accommodations defined and that businesses would not be required to take on a large financial burden to make the accommodations.
"We're not asking an employer, for example, to build a new room for lactation. We're not asking for that. We are saying provide a place behind a curtain or something like that or maybe in the break room for 10 minutes they could have privacy," she said.
The bill went through the house process in three years, nearly being passed at the end of last session. The bill was introduced by retired state Rep. Ellen Story, D-Amherst, and sponsored in this session by state Rep. David Rogers, D-Cambridge. Farley-Bouvier signed on as a co-sponsor and is the vice chair of the Joint Committee on Labor and Workforce Development, which handled the bill.
"One of the exciting things about this bill is the way advocates for employers and the advocates for employees came together and worked this out. It wasn't a contentious thing," Farley-Bouvier said.
The Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination is responsible for enforcing such laws.
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