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BREAKING: Independence Day for Pregnant Workers?
The US Pregnant Workers Fairness Act took effect June 27, 2023. For wellbeing advocates, mum's the word.
As we approach the run-up to US Independence Day, I’m throwing Heigh Ho’s publication schedule into chaos with this rapid update on the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act. The new law took effect on June 27, 2023, which we may be tempted to declare independence day for pregnant workers. (Except we can’t, as my upcoming post about unpaid domestic work will make clear.)
For this ad hoc post, I’m reporting with painstaking fidelity to — in other words, I’m plagiarizing — info circulated by the US Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC).
What Is PWFA?
The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (PWFA) is a federal law requiring covered employers1 to provide reasonable accommodations to qualified2 workers’ who have work limitations resulting from pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions, unless the accommodation will cause the employer “undue hardship” (defined as causing significant difficulty or expense).
Reasonable accommodations include changes to the work environment or the way a job usually gets done. For employers, this means taking actions like…
Offering additional, longer, or more flexible breaks to eat, drink, rest, or use the restroom;
Providing closer parking;
Modifying a work schedule with, say, shorter hours or a later start time;
Providing appropriately sized uniforms and safety apparel;
Allowing leave for medical appointments or to recover from childbirth;
Excusing employees from strenuous activities and/or exposure to chemicals unsafe during pregnancy.
If you’re fortunate enough to work in a modern office led by someone who’s not a neanderthal, these accommodations may seem like no big deal. They may already be available to pregnant workers in your organization.
If, however, you’re in one of the five most common occupations for pregnant workers — teachers, registered nurses, cashiers, administrative assistants, and healthcare aides — these policies can be life-altering. This is also the case in office environments that are led by neanderthals, not the least of which are many game development companies; finance and other professional service firms; and tech start-ups led by bros, and occasionally #girlbosses, who exhort you to grind, hustle, and crush it.
During congressional hearings, witnesses and congressional representatives shared adverse experiences relatable to many pregnant workers. In one example, an employee of a Memphis logistics company brought a doctor’s note saying she should be excused from heavy lifting:
The supervisor did not accommodate the doctor’s note, nor reassign her to a different area. [The worker] continued doing her assigned work of lifting boxes weighing almost 50 pounds. As a result, she suffered a miscarriage.3
Workers and employers who want more info about the PWFA can find it on the EEOC website.
Employee Wellbeing Advocates Have Better Things To Do
Just between you and me, a couple of trusted Heigh Ho readers (I trust all y’all) have encouraged me to “take the gloves off,” sensing I hold back strong opinions that underlie my articles. That’s fair. I have reasons to lie low, but let’s huddle on that another time.
I will unload now…
Many employers presumably have geared up to comply with PWFA. I haven’t heard much, but that doesn’t mean it’s not happening. I don’t always have my finger on the pulse of what my HR compliance cronies are doing… ever since they kicked me outta their club some time ago.
I am, however, aware of a deafening silence in wellbeing circles. This, despite the fact that PWFA is designed to “promote pregnant workers’ health and economic wellbeing.”4
I’m active on platforms where wellbeing influencers hang out. And though I don’t attend many conferences, I often scope out their agenda. Plus, I subscribe to several periodicals, listen to podcasts, read white papers, and attend webinars — all related to employee wellbeing.
And I haven’t heard a thing about PWFA.
I’ve heard a lot about empathetic leadership, psychological safety, AI coaching, purpose, more psychological safety, culture change, walking meetings, authentic intentionality, and various forms of self-actualization that make so little difference in the lives of so many.
While we’re preoccupied with organizational navel gazing, real stuff of wellbeing — like fairness (and unfairness) for pregnant workers — plays out right in front of us.
Empathy? It’s just something we talk about and use to collect Likes on social media posts.
The only explanation I can surmise for wellbeing advocates’ apathy about topics like PWFA (I’ve implied similar arguments in Heigh Ho articles about child labor, climate change, and youth employment) is based on the population it affects most: More than 20% of pregnant workers are employed in low-wage jobs.
As an industry and profession — one that purports allegiance to diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging — we habitually disregard the wellbeing of those in greatest need of our support.
And that’s exactly why I trust all y’all. At the risk of self flattery, I believe Heigh Ho readers — whether you’re a frontline worker, manager, professional, salesperson, or HR/wellness disruptor — recognize the bigger picture of employee wellbeing. I appreciate you.
Okay… I’ma put my gloves back on now. 🥊
Please keep your eyes peeled (yuck!) for upcoming Heigh Ho posts with fresh takes and fresh voices on unpaid domestic work, job crafting, and more.
And for those who celebrate… Happy Independence Day. 🎆
New York Times Gift Articles
(no paywall through July 12, 2023, compliments of Heigh Ho)
A New Law Aims to Stop Pregnancy Discrimination at Work — Here’s what the legislation entails. (June 27, 2023)
Return to Office Enters the Desperation Phase — The next stage of getting workers back at their desks includes incentives like $10 to the charity of their choice — and consequences like poor performance evaluations if they don’t make the trek in. (June 20, 2023)
Covered employers includes private and public sector employers with at least 15 employees, Congress, Federal agencies, employment agencies, and labor organizations.
Qualified employee is defined as ‘‘an employee or applicant who, with or without reasonable accommodations, can perform the essential functions of the employment position… [E]xcept that an employee or applicant shall be considered qualified if—(A) any inability to perform an essential function is for a temporary period; (B) the essential function could be performed in the near future; and (C) the inability to perform the essential function can be reasonably accommodated.’’
House Committee on Education and Labor, Long Over Due: Exploring the Pregnant Workers‘ Fairness Act, YouTube (Oct. 22, 2019), 1:52:15.
House Committee on Education and Labor, Report together with Minority Views [To accompany H.R. 1065], Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (May 4, 2021).