We need more than policies to protect pregnant employees

While new US legislation safeguards accommodations for pregnant employees, we can do more to support teammates who are pregnant. Here's how you can help.
We need more than policies to protect pregnant employees
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Kam Hutchinson accepted a brand-new job on October 1. Less than a month later, she found out she was pregnant.

“I was scared, I was nervous,” says Hutchinson, who works as a recruiting director. “This job meant a lot to me. I know what I’ve heard about moms working and pregnant women working, and I wanted to make sure that there wouldn’t be anything that would slow down my career because I’m having another child. I was completely vulnerable.”

This would be Hutchinson’s second child. When she learned she was pregnant with her first, she had quit her job three days later. The working environment was “quite toxic.” Hutchinson says that when employees asked for guidance from colleagues, they were told to figure it out themselves or leave, and some were fired without notice. One coworker who miscarried believes it was due to the incredible stress of the job. She feared the same could happen to her.

Like Hutchinson, 56% of pregnant women in the US work full-time during their pregnancy, and 82% work into the final month before their due date.

For decades, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 has protected workers in the United States from losing their jobs due to “pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical condition.” But if you needed a place to sit down, protection against toxic chemicals, or other basic accommodations while pregnant on the job, you were likely out of luck—until now. New US legislation, the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, aims to close this long-existing gap in protections. But even with legal accommodations, there’s more we can do to support pregnant employees in our own workplaces.

The challenges that pregnant employees face on the job

For many pregnant workers, maintaining their employment is key to a healthy pregnancy. According to research from the University of Washington, women who experience job precarity before or during pregnancy are almost 50% more likely to deliver newborns with low birth weight than women with low job precarity. That precarity might result from something as simple as an unpredictable schedule or lack of benefits.

Until now, some pregnant employees have been made to choose between losing their job and not getting the basic accommodations they need. “This isn’t theoretical. This is real life,” says Sarah Brafman, national policy director at nonprofit advocacy group A Better Balance. She’s spoken to women whose lives were changed because they were denied simple accommodations at work.

“We’re talking about light duty. We’re talking about moving your schedule back a half an hour because you’re having terrible morning sickness,” says Brafman. “They were forced into homelessness because they lost their paychecks. They were forced into relying on government benefits, losing their healthcare.”

Absent legislation, many women have risked losing their jobs for requesting simple modifications like these. Prior to the act, “a pregnant worker [was] not protected under federal law or entitled to basic accommodations that would keep them healthy and let them keep doing their job,” says Laura Narefsky, a counsel at the National Women’s Law Center, where she advocates for reasonable accommodations for pregnant workers.

Basic accommodations include extra bathroom breaks, a stool to sit on, or the ability to carry a water bottle where food or drink isn’t usually allowed. For women whose jobs include physical tasks, whether in an office or not, it also includes lifting restrictions. “If a doctor says ‘You really shouldn’t be lifting more than 25 pounds,’ a pregnant worker in a warehouse is not currently entitled to that accommodation,” Narefsky says.

New protections for pregnant employees

In some instances, US workers have been protected by the Pregnancy Discrimination Act or the Americans with Disabilities Act—but many cases of workplace discrimination have been ruled in favor of the employer. And they also fall on historically marginalized groups: just see one data brief from the National Partnership on Women & Families, which highlights that while women report pregnancy discrimination across races and ethnicities, a disproportionate number of them are Black women.

The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, aims to fix the gap in workplace protections. After passing the US House of Representatives with bipartisan support in May 2021, it was approved today on the Senate floor. But the long wait for passage sent a message.

“What it shows is a collective disregard or lack of prioritization for the cares and concerns of women in our country,” says visiting Georgetown Law professor Michele Goodwin, who specializes in health law and equal protections, among other fundamental rights. Thirty states and the District of Columbia have protections for pregnant workers on the books. But according to Narefsky, “employees right now in too many states are relying on the goodwill of their employers.” The act aims to correct this.

Why we need to go beyond the laws

More work can be done. The US has the highest maternal mortality rate among developed nations, and for many women, the problem is lack of access to maternal healthcare. Black, indigenous, and Alaska Native women have maternal mortality rates two to three times higher than white women. The Kaiser Family Foundation cites “social and economic inequities that are rooted in racism and discrimination” as the primary cause. Additionally, the US is also the only developed country to offer no paid maternity leave—but research shows that access to paid leave can reduce low birth weight and reduce infant mortality.

It’s generally safe to work during pregnancy, according to the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology, but for workers with high-risk pregnancies or whose jobs expose them to risks like heavy physical labor, changes often need to be made.

“A common misconception is that when a pregnant worker asks for an accommodation, they think it means that they can’t do their job, and that’s absolutely not what it means,” Brafman says. “It means that this worker wants to, and often needs to, continue working and can continue working to the fullest capability, at the same time needing a small change.”

Plenty of employers want to go above and beyond basic needs. The National Partnership for Women & Families has a guide that recommends ways employers can better support pregnant employees on the job. For example, extending accommodations to “all workers, regardless of part-time or temporary status,” not forcing workers to accept unnecessary accommodations, providing paid sick leave and family leave, not docking employees for tardy arrival, and eliminating “‘just-in-time” scheduling, which gives employees very little notice of their shifts.

But some needs of pregnant workers can’t be written into company policy. Dharushana Muthulingam, an infectious disease physician who has been pregnant twice while on the job, says what she needed most were informal accommodations, like being able to sit down. “When I was a trainee, my supervising physician would often be like, ‘Okay, let’s sit down to do rounds. Normally you’re standing. I really counted on these informal things. Nurses would see me leaning against the wall, and they’d bring me a chair. When I really needed to eat, people would be like, ‘Oh, I know where the crackers are.’”

Late in Muthulingam’s second pregnancy, the physically demanding commute, which required both train travel and walking, became too much. She ended up driving to work, but it was a 20-minute walk from the parking lot to her workplace. Walking across the facility to get food was taxing as well.

She wants employers to “recognize that every employee has a very different experience of pregnancy,” and therefore needs are unique. For some it will be very easy, for others hard. “I really am surprised how many people do not recognize that,” says Muthulingam.

Not only do physical needs vary: so do professional ones. She says that as an ambitious worker, she wanted to be safe, healthy, and taking care of her fetus. “On the other hand,” she says, “there’s this real danger of being mother-trapped.” Like Hutchinson, she feared her career would stall or otherwise derail as a result of her pregnancy and parental status.

Hutchinson says she wants employers to “listen to your female employees and recognize that being a mom isn’t a detriment. As a mom, you’re learning how to multitask, you’re learning how to deal with tantrums, you’re learning how to stay organized, use your time wisely, calm down situations where it may be challenging. All of these things you can bring into the workplace.”

When she told her manager she was pregnant, Hutchinson’s employer connected her with three colleagues who had also been pregnant on the job. All of them, says Hutchinson, had been promoted after their pregnancies. They told her: “Look, I know it’s scary, but moms can do this. We’ve done it, and we’re here to support you. We know what you’re going through, so reach out to us with anything that’s concerning you.” In December 2022, Hutchinson herself was promoted.

Hutchinson says pregnant workers simply need to hear employers and colleagues ask “‘How can I help? How can I support you?’ Those two questions can transform how a woman goes through her pregnancy.”

How you can support pregnant employees on the job

Encourage formal and informal social supports for pregnant workers. Like the nurses who found Muthulingam a chair or snacks when she needed it, anyone can ask and offer help to pregnant teammates, all while respecting their boundaries. And like the supervisor who connected her with other colleagues who had been pregnant on the job, managers and leaders can foster intentional connection for support. One formalized option is to establish employee resource groups (ERGs) for pregnant workers and/or parents to help workers find the social support they need.

Do away with lateness penalties for all workers. Pregnant employees will often experience symptoms like morning sickness and fatigue before they are ready to share their pregnancy status. Doing away with tardiness penalties for all workers will give these employees the flexibility they need.

Provide schedule flexibility for your employees. Pregnant workers will also need to attend prenatal doctor’s appointments before they are ready to disclose their pregnancy status. Make schedules flexible and allow for paid time away as needed.

Make sure your company offers a range of paid family leave and sick days. Paid family leave and paid sick days provide even more flexibility. The National Partnership for Women & Families recommends employers extend paid leave to “all workers, regardless of part-time or temporary status.”

No matter your role, help your teammates understand their legal rights & your workplace policies. Many employees may not be aware of their rights under laws like the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA), and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). They may also not be aware of your company policies and protections. The National Partnership for Women & Families recommends making these materials available in all languages commonly spoken in the workplace.

This story has been updated.