New government funding package includes ‘historic step forward’ for pregnant workers, new mothers

  • Two bills to provide additional protections for pregnant
    workers and breastfeeding people were included in the $1.7 trillion federal
    government spending package passed by Congress this week.
  • The changes are a “monumental and historic step
    forward” that will make a huge difference for low-income workers,
    particularly women of color, one advocate says.

Mothers and moms-to-be are poised to get new workplace
protections, thanks to two amendments included in the $1.7 trillion federal
government spending package that Congress on Friday sent
to President Joe Biden
 for his signature.

That includes the Pregnant
Workers Fairness Act
, which will require employers to make temporary and
reasonable accommodations for pregnant workers.

“Pregnancy should never be a barrier for women who want
to stay in the workplace,” Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., one of the leaders
behind the proposal, said in a statement.

“This legislation would provide commonsense protections
for pregnant workers, like extra bathroom breaks or a stool for workers who
stand, so they can continue working while not putting extra strain on their
pregnancies,” Casey said.

Casey first introduced the proposal in 2012. The bipartisan
bill was also led by Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La.

The Senate amendment to add the bill to the spending package
passed on Thursday with a 73-24 vote. The proposal was passed by the House of
Representatives in May 2021. The House passed the larger package to fund the
federal government on Friday.

“The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act is one of the
biggest pieces of civil rights and workplace protection legislation to pass in
over a decade,” said Sarah Brafman, national policy director at A Better
Balance, a nonprofit advocacy organization focused on workers’ rights.

“It is a monumental and historic step forward for
pregnant and post-partum workers,” she said.

New protections for working women ‘in the shadows’

The change would provide protections for many women “in
the shadows” who would share with advocates stories of what happened to
them, Brafman said. That includes pregnant workers who asked for light duty who
were then pushed out of their jobs, women who asked for schedule accommodations
due to morning sickness who were refused their requests and female cashiers who
asked for a chair to sit on who were told instead to come back after they gave
birth and later found their positions had been filled.

The issue disproportionately affects low-income workers –
particularly women of color – in low-wage, physically demanding jobs, Brafman

The Senate also on Thursday passed an amendment with a 92-5
vote to include the Providing Urgent Maternal Protections (PUMP) for Nursing
Mothers Act in the government funding bill.

That proposal, which would protect a worker’s right to
breastfeed in the workplace, also had bipartisan backing in the chamber through
leaders including Sens. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., and Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska.

Bipartisan effort looks to require companies to provide
accommodation for pregnant women at work

The bill expands on a 2010 law that requires employers to
allow for time and space for mothers to pump and store breast milk at work.

“We must make it possible for every new mom returning
to the workplace to have the option to continue breastfeeding,”
Merkley said in a statement.

That 2010 law excluded protections for nearly 9 million
women of child-bearing age, according to Brafman. That forced breastfeeding
women to pump in their cars or stop pumping altogether because their employers
did not give them time and space, she said.

Both bills had strong backing from the business community,
which wanted clarity on the gaps in the law and to clear confusion for business
owners, she noted.

“This is really an economic justice victory, a gender
justice victory, a racial justice victory, because these issues often so
disproportionately affect women of color and especially Black women,”
Brafman said.

“These are really strides forward for Black maternal
health, in particular,” she said.