Senate panel approves increased protections for pregnant workers

The U.S. Capitol Building is pictured in Washington, U.S., August 1, 2021. REUTERS/Elizabeth Frantz/File Photo
  • Bill would require accommodations for pregnant workers
  • 19-2 committee vote underscores bipartisan support
  • Some Republicans seeking exemption for religious employers

(Reuters) - A U.S. Senate committee on Tuesday gave bipartisan approval to a bill that would require employers to grant reasonable accommodations to pregnant workers, despite objections from some Republicans and conservatives about the measure's coverage for women who get abortions.

The Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) voted 19-2 to approve the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, teeing the bill up for a vote by the full Senate after the Democrat-led House of Representatives passed it in May.

The bill has been approved by the House at least twice since it was first introduced in 2012, but has never been voted on in the Senate.

Republican Senators Mike Braun of Indiana and Tommy Tuberville of Alabama were the only members of the HELP Committee to vote against the bill on Tuesday.

The proposal would go further than existing federal laws that only require employers to provide pregnant women with the same accommodations granted to injured or disabled employees, such as restrictions on heavy lifting or more frequent breaks.

Worker advocates have said that by not mandating accommodations, current law does not go far enough, and that women who sue their employers face often insurmountable hurdles in proving liability.

The PWFA is backed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other major business groups, which have said it would benefit pregnant workers by providing stronger legal protections and also help businesses by setting out a clear legal standard for them to follow.

In the 2015 case Young v. United Parcel Service Inc, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that plaintiffs who bring claims under the federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act must show they were denied accommodations that their employer granted to other workers to prevail in their lawsuits.

Supporters of the Tuesday's bill have said that can be nearly impossible to demonstrate, since many pregnant workers cannot identify similarly situated disabled workers and do not necessarily know what kind of accommodations their employers have provided in the past.

Worker advocates and women's rights groups hailed Tuesday's bipartisan vote. Dina Bakst, co-president of advocacy group A Better Balance, said changing the law is necessary to end the treatment of female workers as "second-class citizens."

"In the midst of a global pandemic that has forced millions of women out of work, putting a stop to the care crisis and building back better means finally guaranteeing fair and equal treatment for pregnant workers and new mothers," Bakst said in a statement.

But many Republican lawmakers, and some conservative and religious groups, have said the bill should include an exemption for religious organizations so they do not have to accommodate employees who choose to have abortions.

As written, the bill would apply not only to pregnancy but to childbirth and "related medical conditions," a term that could extend to complications from abortions.

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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