Bill Delivered: Advocates hope city's legislation is just a first step in workplace rights for pregnant women | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Bill Delivered: Advocates hope city's legislation is just a first step in workplace rights for pregnant women

"I hope it sends a message to pregnant women that they have rights in the workplace."

During a pregnancy, doctors often advise women to stay hydrated and spend less time on their feet. But in most workplaces across Pennsylvania, a pregnant woman could be fired for following her doctor's orders.

"[W]hen an employer denies a pregnant employee's request for an accommodation, she is faced with an alarming and untenable choice: Continue working under conditions that are hazardous to her health and her pregnancy, or leave her job and livelihood," says Tara Pfeifer, staff attorney for the nonprofit Women's Law Project. "Given that women are the primary or solo breadwinner in 40 percent of all households, it is clear that when pregnant women are forced out of a job, entire families pay the price."

Last week, Pittsburgh City Council unanimously passed legislation to expand workplace protections for pregnant city employees. While the legislation only protects a small segment of the Pittsburgh community — city employees and employees of contractors doing business with the city — it could lead to similar protections at the state level, and a push for a larger conversation about issues facing working mothers.

"This piece of legislation is a great example of how a number of workplace policies will need to be improved as women make up more of the majority of the workforce," says Heather Arnet, CEO of the Women and Girls Foundation.

According to Pittsburgh City Councilor Dan Gilman, who sponsored the local legislation, 75 percent of working women will become pregnant at some point in their lives. His legislation, co-sponsored by Councilor Deb Gross, will require the city and employers with $250,000 or more in city contracts to make "reasonable accommodations" for pregnant workers.

"The number of complaints being filed by women across Pennsylvania was on the rise," Gilman says. "I hope it sends a message to pregnant women that they have rights in the workplace."

Required reasonable accommodations for pregnant workers can include: providing access to drinking water, allowing unpaid breaks, and other adjustments to work responsibilities — such as allowing a worker to sit when she would otherwise stand — that might present a health risk. A separate piece of legislation will also set up lactation rooms in city offices for women who are breast-feeding.

The legislation benefits more than 800 city workers, but Gilman says there's no way to tell how many contract employees will benefit. The requirements only apply to employees during work done under city contracts.

"It's a piece of the puzzle in the conversation that women don't have to choose between their economic vitality and the health of themselves and their baby," says Gilman.

Despite Gilman's legislation, pregnancy still puts women at risk financially because many employers do not provide paid maternity leave for mothers.

"I'm the mom of a 15-month-old, and I think everyone is talking about how hard it is to juggle having a family with a full-time work commitment," says Julie Zaebst, project manager for the Clara Bell Duvall Reproductive Freedom Project at the American Civil Liberties Union. "I hope this legislation also leads employers to think about what other ways they can make things easier for women, and paid maternity leave is certainly a part of that."

The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 requires companies to grant up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for new mothers. Employees can choose to use sick days and vacation time to alleviate the financial hardship of lost wages, but in many cases these days aren't enough to account for the entire maternity leave.

According to the Center for Economic and Policy Research, the United States has the "least generous" parental-leave policies among 21 high-income countries. France, Spain, Germany, Sweden and Norway are the top five.

"What I'd like to see more of is paid maternity leave like every other developed nation," says Arnet. "For most families, it's completely prohibitive to take unpaid leave and there's no other developed nation that expects that of families."

In Pennsylvania, some employers do offer short-term disability leave, which allows employees to maintain two-thirds of their earnings while off work. Disability leave can be used by mothers to supplement their income while on maternity leave. But this option isn't available to all working women and there are limits to the leave.

Before local lawmakers can set their sights on paid maternity leave, the state must pass its own version of legislation providing "reasonable accommodations" for pregnant employees. The state legislation, unveiled as part of the Pennsylvania Agenda for Women's Health package, was proposed in December 2013.

"We thought this would be a great first step before moving on to addressing other issues facing women in the workplace," says state Sen. Matt Smith (D-Mount Lebanon), one of the bill's sponsors.

While there has been no vocal opposition to the measure, it's yet to move forward. The bill has been awaiting a committee hearing since February.

"The frustrating thing is this has bipartisan support. I'd like to see it move faster through the process," Smith says. "I'll continue to push on this issue because I think it's important to all of us in Pennsylvania to make sure we're providing the opportunity to work for anyone who wants to."