Once upon a time, when a working woman became pregnant, she’d typically be expected to leave her job and retreat into full-time domestic duties. These days, white-collar career women sport proud baby bumps under power suits, and across the workforce, women now regularly serve as the main breadwinners, and must work before, during, and after pregnancy. Yet many workplaces are still stuck in a Victorian mindset about what pregnant women can and can’t do on the job. Now a new law in Illinois is set to modernize the way bosses deal with pregnant employees.
The so-called Pregnancy Fairness law, which Governor Pat Quinn signed into law yesterday, establishes distinct civil rights protections for pregnant workers who require a modest adjustment to their duties to do their jobs. The employer still has the right to refuse but only if it could prove that the accommodation “would impose an undue hardship” on the business.
Most working women will keep working during their pregnancy, often into the third trimester. Yet labor law has lagged in accommodating pregnancy at work. Since 1978, pregnant workers have had limited protection against discrimination by their boss under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act. But countless women have been denied the reasonable accommodations they have requested in order to keep working, like being allowed to sit on a stool at the register. Sometimes they are unnecessarily forced off the job.
Today, pregnancy discrimination protection, along with paid sick leave, equal pay, and flexible scheduling, ties into a suite of policy demands that labor feminists are pushing to bring gender justice to work.
Recently, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued new guidelines on pregnant workers’ entitlement to light duty, and a recent expansion of the Americans with Disabilities Act clarifies the employer’s obligation to accommodate health conditions related to pregnancy. Building on that framework, Illinois has placed pregnancy discrimination under the jurisdiction of the state’s Human Rights Commission, following similar legislation in fifteen other states and cities. Parallel federal legislation has been introduced in Congress with the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act.
Melissa Josephs of the Chicago-based organization Women Employed, tells The Nation that the existing federal restrictions against pregnancy discrimination gave the employer “no affirmative duty to do anything” to accommodate the worker. Now, there’s a wider range of guaranteed options. In some cases, the law might be applied to grant the worker time off from work, she says, “but I think more often it might just be being allowed to drink water or carry a water bottle on the job, or to sit or to lift less.” As women are now increasingly active during pregnancy, “This law was needed, we felt, because people didn’t want to take the time off, they just wanted an accommodation.”