The Decade-Long Journey to End Pregnancy Discrimination
In 2012, Dina Bakst and other representatives from A Better Balance, a nonprofit that advocates for gender equity in the workplace, met with Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) to discuss how to best craft the first version of the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act.
A decade later, pregnant workers will — finally — benefit from some of those protections.
The PWFA was first introduced in Congress 2012, and then introduced in every legislative session thereafter until finally, it made it over the finish line. It first passed in the House in 2020 with sweeping bipartisan support, but didn’t make it to the Senate floor that session. In May of 2021, it passed in the House again, and then passed in the Senate in December 2o22 as part of the omnibus spending bill. It went into effect last week.
The Act provides pregnant and postpartum workers the right to reasonable accommodation for known limitations related to pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions, unless such accommodations would pose an “undue hardship” to the employer.
Despite bipartisan support, proponents say they struggled to make the Senate see the act as a priority. It took a decade of advocacy, two Congressional hearings, and a few strong supporters on Capitol Hill to finally bring it to life.
“It really is such common sense legislation. I thought it would pass a long time ago,” Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), who’s been an advocate for the bill since it was first introduced, tells Women Rule.
“It required a huge amount of tenacity, doggedness, creative thinking and just unyielding pressure on both Republicans and Democrats in the Senate to make sure that this bill was a priority,” says Vania Leveille, the senior legislative counsel at the ACLU National Political Advocacy Department, who was a key supporter of the legislation.
Before the PWFA, when people asked for pregnancy related accommodations – like temporarily switching to a less physically demanding job – they were sometimes turned down or even fired.
“I heard from too many women in Pennsylvania and around the country that they were denied reasonable accommodations like a stool, a water bottle, or extra bathroom breaks,” says Senator Bob Casey (D-Pa.), who was also a vocal advocate for the act.
Adds Murray, “I was hearing from women who had literally quit their job when they were pregnant because there were no accommodations,” Murray says. “I was amazed at how many women contacted us and told us their stories.”
The catalyst was an op-ed that Bakst penned in the New York Times in 2012, where she wrote that her legal team at A Better Balance had seen many cases of pregnant workers being fired after asking for help.
The op-ed caught the eye of Nadler, who reached out to A Better Balance for assistance in drafting a bill. Later that year, Nadler and a few colleagues introduced the first version of the PWFA to the House.
For the next few years, Bakst and other advocates took their efforts to the states to encourage lawmakers to pass their own pregnancy protections – helping draft legislation, testifying at statehouses and working with business owners to help them understand the bills. So far, over 30 states have and cities have laws that provide accommodations to pregnant workers.
That “helped show members of Congress that these laws in these states were working, because we brought many examples of workers to members of Congress to show that the state laws were helping keep pregnant women healthy and attached to the workforce,” Bakst says.