Millions of pregnant and postpartum workers across the country could be legally entitled to longer breaks, shorter hours and time off for medical appointments and recovery from childbirth beginning Tuesday, when the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act takes effect.
The new law mandates that employers with at least 15 employees provide "reasonable accommodations" to workers who need them due to pregnancy, childbirth or related medical conditions, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which is tasked with enforcing the law.
An estimated 2.8 million workers annually could benefit from the policy change, according to a report published last fall by the advocacy organization National Partnership for Women and Families.
The EEOC has yet to publish a list of the types of accommodations that will be required under the law. But examples could include more flexible hours, the option to sit in jobs that require long periods of standing, a parking spot closer to the workplace, access to uniforms and safety apparel that fit a pregnant person’s changing body, and excusal from heavy lifting or working around chemicals that could be dangerous during pregnancy, according to the EEOC.
By the end of this year, the commission is required to publish guidance on how employers should implement the law, including a list of examples of reasonable accommodations, which the public will have a chance to weigh in on.
Dina Bakst, co-founder and co-president of the workers’ rights advocacy organization A Better Balance, pushed for the law over the past decade. She said she expects the change will particularly benefit pregnant workers in low-wage and male-dominated jobs, since such employees often fear losing their jobs if they ask for pregnancy-related accommodations.
For example, Bakst added, mandated bathroom access and water breaks "sound so basic, but for women in retail and other low-wage industries with overly rigid, inflexible jobs, these kinds of accommodations can make a big difference."
A Better Balance has operated a free legal helpline since 2009, and Bakst said many pregnant workers who have called in the past reported facing "devastating" economic consequences — including food insecurity and homelessness — because they were fired or forced out of work after requesting pregnancy-related accommodations.
According to the EEOC, 8 in 10 women who are pregnant for the first time work until the final month of pregnancy, and nearly a quarter of mothers have considered leaving their jobs during pregnancy due to lack of accommodations or fear of discrimination.
A joint report produced last year by A Better Balance and the advocacy group Black Mamas Matter Alliance suggests protections for pregnant workers could also help reduce racial disparities in maternal and infant health, particularly for Black mothers, who have the highest labor force participation among moms with kids under 18.
Under the new law, employers will be able to opt out of providing accommodations to pregnant workers if they can show that doing so presents an “undue hardship” on their business operations.
Kathleen Gerson, a professor of sociology at New York University whose work has focused on gender and employment, characterized the new policy as “a step in the right direction.”
"It does begin to change the culture of the workplace and how we as workers and employers think about it," Gerson said of the law.
The act does not guarantee paid parental leave, however, which was eliminated from President Biden's Build Back Better package in 2021 and which Gerson said is still necessary to support workers after childbirth.
She added that until the EEOC publishes more information about "reasonable accommodations" under the law, it's hard to predict what impacts the policy will have.
"Certainly it’s good news — there’s no question about that. The question really is, how good is the news and how much more will be left to be done?" Gerson said.
Sharyn Tejani, associate legal counsel at the EEOC, said that until the EEOC issues its guidance, employers can consult other civil rights laws mentioned in the legislation — including the Americans with Disabilities Act — to determine examples of reasonable accommodations and what qualifies for a hardship exemption.
Tejani added that workers can file complaints with the EEOC about their employers' failure to comply with the new law.
President Biden signed the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act into law in December, following a yearslong push to bring it to a vote in the Senate. Earlier versions of the bill passed in the House with bipartisan support in 2019 and 2021 but didn't pass in the Senate until it became part of the $1.7 trillion government funding bill.