New Massachusetts Law Protects Pregnant Workers

Nearly a year ago, the Massachusetts legislature passed the Equal Pay Act. That law took aim at some of the most pernicious sex and gender-based workplace discrimination we know. This year, we are establishing workplace protections for pregnant workers, because unfortunately gender-based employment discrimination doesn’t end with pay.

State Rep. Liz Malia, D-Jamaica Plain

Today, women comprise half the workforce and are the primary breadwinner for over forty percent of households with children. At some point in their working lives, nearly 85 percent of women will become mothers. Unfortunately, we’ve heard too many horror stories of employers in the Commonwealth not consistently offering accommodations to pregnant workers who must keep working to make ends meet, and even unjustly firing pregnant workers over increased bathroom breaks, medical appointments or the simple need to sit.

Until now, pregnant women in all industries of every ethnicity in every state were not guaranteed protections under our state law because pregnancy discrimination was subject to the court’s interpretation of the word “sex.” Despite the passage of the federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 (PDA), which outlawed pregnancy discrimination on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth or related medical conditions as illegal sex discrimination, unfortunately many courts interpreted the PDA narrowly, enabling employers to readily refuse workers accommodations arising from pregnancy.

That’s why as a member of the Joint Committee on Labor and Workforce Development and the Caucus of Women Legislators, I voted in April to advance the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act to end pregnancy discrimination, promote healthy pregnancies, and protect the economic security of pregnant women and their families. In late July, the Legislature sent the final version of the compromise bill to the Governor, and it became law on July 27 (Chapter 54 of the Acts of 2017).

The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act offers pregnant workers protection in the form of mandated accommodations that allow them to continue working without having to sacrifice their health or having a heathy pregnancy. Under the new law, employers must offer pregnant workers access to water and seating, private non-bathroom space for expressing breast milk, longer paid or unpaid breaks, time off with or without pay to recover from childbirth, job restructuring, or a temporary transfer to a less strenuous or hazardous position. Additionally, the law bans employers from refusing to hire a pregnant woman solely because she requires a reasonable accommodation. It also prevents employers from requiring an employee to take a leave of absence if another reasonable accommodation may be provided without undue hardship to the employer. Going forward, I am hopeful these commonsense legal protections will enable women to have healthy pregnancies and to remain productive workers.

At the federal level, there is pending legislation to establish easy-to-apply legal standards to protect workers nationwide. It would answer the questions left open in 2015 by the Supreme Court in the case, Young vs. UPS, where the court ruled that pregnant workers must present evidence that employers are refusing to accommodate them while accommodating other employees whose ability to work is similar to their own. Even if the federal law remains, to date, 20 states, the District of Columbia and five cities have passed laws requiring reasonable accommodations for pregnant workers, making Massachusetts the twenty-first state to add greater protections for pregnant workers.

Female workers deserve respect, basic accommodations, and legal protections during their pregnancies. With the passage of this new law, we will help to solidify women’s security in their careers, increase predictability and productivity for employers, and prevent women from choosing between their health and a paycheck.

State Rep. Liz Malia, D-11th Suffolk, was first elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1998.