Thirty-five years ago this month, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) was signed into law by President Jimmy Carter, aiming to protect women from employment discrimination based on pregnancy. Since that time, the law has been interpreted so narrowly by federal courts that it actually does not protect pregnant women who are fired, forced to take leave, or quit when they require temporary, often minor accommodations like refraining from heavy lifting or carrying a bottle of water.
While some states, including New York, have begun to enact legislation addressing the gap in the law, there have been no real attempts by Congress to take action and address this issue at the federal level
—until recently. The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (PWFA), which is currently being considered in Congress, would address this gap in the PDA by requiring employers to make temporary accommodations for pregnancy, childbirth, and related medical conditions—similar to accommodations employers must make for persons with disabilities. According to the National Women’s Law Center, “Accommodations may include reprieves from heavy lifting duties, permission to stay off ladders, or the ability to sit on a stool behind the cash register.”
the PWFA is likely to be blocked by House Republicans before even getting to a vote.
The bill’s prospect for advancement stands in stark contrast to polling data
showing strong support, even among some Republicans voters, for a family economic policy agenda that seeks to improve pay, work-family balance, and child-care support.
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In July, the research firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, the Women’s Voices, Women Vote Action Fund, and Democracy Corps conducted a poll of about 950 male and female 2012 voters and some 840 likely 2014 voters. Of those polled, a whopping 90 percent said they want to achieve pay equity by raising pay for women. Ninety-one percent said they want to protect pregnant workers and mothers from being fired or demoted. Other ideas, like expanding scholarships for women and parents to get better jobs, received nods from 87 percent of those polled. And of two economic agendas tested in this poll, the agenda that focused on pay, opportunity, and support for working moms performed best.
“Passing the PWFA or anything like it in this Congress would clearly be a challenge, but there are still reasons why this bill has potential to be bipartisan and command strong support,” Emily Martin, vice president and general counsel of the National Women’s Law Center, told Rewire. “This polling data actually reveals broad political appeal of this issue. When a bill like PWFA actually gets to a floor vote, it’s hard to oppose—it’s hard to say you think pregnant workers shouldn’t get reasonable accommodations.”
Family policy legislation that prevents pregnancy discrimination or promotes women’s economic status is broadly perceived as benefiting “only” women—even though women constitute roughly 50 percent of the population, and even though such policies affect economic conditions for partners and children.
Peggy Young’s story exemplifies this. Young is a former UPS driver who requested a light-duty assignment from her employer after obtaining a doctor’s note indicating she should not lift more than 20 pounds. Since UPS did not allow light-duty assignments for pregnancy-related issues, she was forced to take unpaid leave for the duration of her pregnancy.
She and her husband lost income as well as her medical insurance right before her daughter was born. (Incidentally, Young now works for a federal contractor. Due to the government shutdown she was recently furloughed for 16 days with no guarantee of backpay.)
“Men can’t have kids. Businesses are making women choose whether to have kids or have a career,” Young told Rewire. “Why can’t companies account for pregnant women’s needs and let them keep working, especially today since most families need two incomes?”
The failure of elected leaders to more aggressively promote such policies is indicative of multiple problems with the political process—namely, the influence of business interests over the interests of individual workers and families.
And the influence of business runs deep, well beyond just the Republican majority in the House of Representatives. The July poll summary hints at this, pointing out that until recently Democratic leadership has not had a particularly progressive family policy agenda, either: “It is incredible to note that Democrats have not put these policies together as a package until now—given how strong they are among all voters and among the voters whose support they most need in 2014.”
Ideally, data showing that constituents want stronger anti-discrimination and pay fairness laws would actually affect the political process,
as it has in the past. As Erica Seifert, senior analyst with Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, told Rewire, “It is accepted as fact that the major gender, family, and employment protections that followed the 1964 Civil Rights Act were all a result of Congress’ better access to public opinion. These include the Pregnancy Discrimination Act as well as the Equal Employment Opportunity Act and the Family and Medical Leave Act. And we do know that President George Bush Senior took a pretty big hit in the polls when he vetoed family medical leave in the early 1990s.”
So even though it has little chance of success given the current makeup of the House, advocacy groups like NWLC are continuing to push for the PWFA and other pro-family economic policies. October 31 is the 35th anniversary of the signing of the PDA, and NWLC and other groups are using this event as a chance to build support for the PWFA in Congress. “The government shutdown complicated our plans a bit, but we are still engaging in a lot of activity to grow a cosponsor list and build broader support for this legislation,” said Martin.
And there is emerging discussion about a broader family policy agenda beyond the PWFA, such as Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY)’s five-point family policy plan. While unlikely to move forward in any significant way right now, Gillibrand and other like-minded policymakers are helping to create a worker-focused vision for the future. If they succeed, we could have policy that looks more like what workers need—rather than what businesses want.