New US Pregnancy Laws Aren’t Enough for a Family-Friendly Workplace

Accommodations for pregnant staffers are a step toward key policies like paid family leave

New rules for US employers will make it easier for many pregnant workers to keep doing their jobs, but advocates say there’s still a long way to go to make workplaces family-friendly.

The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, a federal law that took effect last week, now requires companies to provide accommodations like breaks or remote work for employees that are expecting. That’s on the heels of the PUMP for Nursing Mothers Act, which landed six months ago and expands protections for managing breastfeeding needs while at work.

The new laws are an important step to improving pregnant workers’ ability to remain in the workforce. But they’re only part of what’s needed for serious economic impact — there are around 23.5 million employed women with children under the age of 18, and making it easier for them to work is good for the economy. Family-friendly policies like guaranteed paid leave, subsidized child care and universal pre-kindergarten could give the US economy a $1 trillion boost over the next 10 years by increasing the female labor participation rate, according to a report last year from Moody’s Investors Service. None of these are, as yet, mandated by federal law.

Before this, companies had very little obligation to make exceptions for pregnant staffers that would enable them to keep working. The Americans with Disabilities Act mandates accommodations be made only when pregnancy conditions rise to the level of a disability. Federal law bars discrimination where a pregnant worker is refused something that others are granted, like allowing a colleague with a back injury to go on light duty, but not accommodating a pregnant worker with restrictions on how much they should lift. Expectant mothers at companies with 50 or more workers who have been there for more than a year may also be entitled to time off under the Family and Medical Leave Act, on an unpaid basis.

There are “so many more fights to come: we have paid family and medical leave to win, we have wages to raise, we have child care to provide,” Vicki Shabo, a senior fellow at think tank New America, said at a recent webinar celebrating the passage of the PWFA. “We have common ground to find on all of these things.”

What workplace accommodations are pregnant employees entitled to?

Under the PWFA, employers must provide “reasonable accommodations” for worker needs stemming from pregnancy, childbirth or a related medical condition. This can include providing a chair at an employee’s workstation, increasing water or bathroom breaks or ensuring uniforms or work gear are properly sized, according to the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for WorkLife Law. Workers may need schedule changes to attend medical appointments or to have their job temporarily changed so they can avoid chemicals dangerous in pregnancy.

Who is protected?

Companies with 15 or more employees as well as state and local governments are covered by the PWFA. Some states already have laws in place that protect workers at smaller organizations: California, for example, requires accommodations for companies with 5 or more employees. Compliance is mandatory unless it would create an “undue hardship.” That’s a “fairly high standard,” according to Kara Govro, principal legal analyst at Mineral, a human resource and compliance company. “Employers shouldn’t get hung up on saying it’s an undue hardship—that’s a good way to end up in court, to say that letting someone sit for a few hours of their shift is an undue hardship,” she said. “We always tell employers don’t go there unless you really, really have to.”

How about pumping?

In December the Providing Urgent Maternal Protections for Nursing Mothers Act went into effect, closing some loopholes in 2010 legislation that required employers to provide workers with time to pump milk in non-bathroom spaces during the workday. Previously, only workers that received overtime pay were covered. Now, an estimated additional 9 million workers will be entitled to reasonable breaks. Nearly all workers — regardless of the size of the employer — are covered by the federal requirements, except for airline flight crew members, according to the US Breastfeeding Committee, a non-profit that advocates for breastfeeding support.

What about abortions, pregnancy loss or infertility?

The PWFA also covers accommodations for abortion appointments or pregnancy loss recovery, according to the ACLU/WLL. Fertility treatments count as a “related medical condition.”

Will the new laws give workers paid family leave?

No. The US is only one of only seven countries globally that doesn’t guarantee it for workers — the FMLA allows some Americans to take up to 12 weeks off, with no guarantee of pay, if they have a baby, get sick or need to care for an ill relative. About 44% of US employees—including those who work part time or have been in their role less than a year—are ineligible.

About a quarter of civilian workers have access to paid family leave, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, but the amount varies. At the average Russell 1000 company, primary caregivers typically get 10.5 weeks of paid leave, while secondary caregivers get 7.6 weeks, according to JUST Capital, which tracks corporate equity.

However, sixteen states and Washington DC have passed paid family leave laws at the local level. New programs in Colorado, Delaware, Maryland, Minnesota, and Oregon will go into effect in the next three years, according to the Bipartisan Policy Center think tank.

This article was authored by Kelsey Butler, and was originally published by Bloomberg.