U.S. Senate passes increased protections for pregnant workers

A woman receives an ultrasound at an abortion clinic in Texas, U.S.
REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein

(Reuters) - The U.S. Senate in a bipartisan vote on Thursday approved stronger legal protections for pregnant workers with the support of business groups, who say the move will clarify employers' legal obligations.

The Democrat-controlled Senate earlier on Thursday voted 73-24 to amend a $1.66 trillion spending bill by adding the proposal, known as the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (PWFA). The Senate then passed the spending bill 68-29, teeing up a vote set for Friday in the U.S. House of Representatives.

President Joe Biden, a Democrat, is expected to sign the spending bill ahead of a midnight Friday deadline if it passes the House. Biden has supported the PWFA, saying last year that many pregnant workers are unfairly forced to choose between their health and their jobs.

The PWFA requires companies to provide pregnant workers with reasonable accommodations such as limits on heavy lifting and more frequent breaks. Currently, federal law only requires those accommodations if employers also give them to workers with injuries or medical conditions.

The Democrat-controlled House has passed the bill multiple times since it was first introduced in 2012, but it never came up for a vote in the Senate.

Three Republican senators scuttled a vote on the proposal earlier this month. Some Republicans have said the bill should exempt religious employers to ensure they do not have to accommodate employees who have abortions. The bill applies not only to pregnancy but to childbirth and "related medical conditions."

The PWFA is backed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other major business groups, which have said it would benefit pregnant workers while establishing a clear legal standard for employers to follow.

Worker advocates have said that by not mandating accommodations for all pregnant workers, current law does not go far enough, and that women who sue their employers for pregnancy discrimination can face insurmountable hurdles in proving liability.

In the 2015 case Young v. United Parcel Service Inc, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that plaintiffs who sue under the current law must show they were denied accommodations that were granted to coworkers with medical conditions in order to prevail in their lawsuits.

But that can be difficult to demonstrate, since many pregnant workers cannot identify similarly situated disabled workers and may not know what kind of accommodations their employers have provided in the past.

Women's rights groups and worker advocates hailed Thursday's Senate vote. Fatima Goss Graves, president and CEO of the National Women's Law Center, said the changes will particularly help low-wage workers who are more likely to have physically demanding jobs and inflexible hours.

"Ensuring reasonable accommodations are available for pregnant workers is a win-win for workers who will continue doing their jobs during their pregnancies and for employers who will retain their workforce," Graves said in a statement.

Read more:

Senate panel approves increased protections for pregnant workers

House passes bill requiring accommodations for pregnant workers

U.S. Supreme Court revives pregnant worker’s case against UPS

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Dan Wiessner (@danwiessner) reports on labor and employment and immigration law, including litigation and policy making. He can be reached at daniel.wiessner@thomsonreuters.com.