A new federal law that prohibits employers from discriminating against pregnant workers went into effect on Tuesday, extending protections to millions of people.

The law, called the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (PWFA), requires businesses with 15 or more employees to provide “reasonable accommodations” to workers with limitations related to pregnancy or childbirth — unless the accommodation is deemed difficult or expensive.

An estimated 2.8 million women work while pregnant, according to data from the National Partnership for Women and Families. The PWFA provides essential protections for them, with an emphasis on Black women, who are most likely to be employed while pregnant.

The PWFA could play out differently for each worker, depending on their needs. For example, a grocery store worker may request a stool to sit on instead of standing for long hours at a cash register. A fast food worker may request a change in uniform to accommodate maternity pants. A clothing store worker may request to carry a bottle of water on the floor.

Other examples include longer breaks to rest or use the bathroom, later start times to accommodate for morning sickness, creating temporary lactation spaces, flexible scheduling for prenatal and postpartum appointments, and time off for childbirth recovery. 

In 2015, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a UPS driver who was denied accommodations while pregnant.

The PWFA was signed by President Joe Biden in December 2022. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is responsible for enforcing the law, including reviewing cases of discrimination that occur on or after June 27. 

“I am honored to lead the EEOC as we enforce a new civil rights law. For workers and job applicants, the PWFA will help ensure economic security at a critical time in their lives,” EEOC Chair Charlotte A. Burrows said in a statement.

The PWFA comes nearly four decades after the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA), which was passed in 1978. The law was groundbreaking at the time. It banned hiring, firing, promoting, and adjusting pay and other benefits based on a person’s pregnancy status. 

Yet, over the years, many workplace needs continued to go unmet, resulting in a slew of lawsuits.

In 2015, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a UPS (United Parcel Service) driver who was denied accommodations while pregnant. Peggy Young, the plaintiff in Young v. UPS, was advised to lift no more than 20 pounds by her OB/GYN and midwife. She requested a lighter workload but was denied because UPS did not give light-duty for pregnancy. Though, they did offer the assignments to injured or disabled workers.

PWFA may provide essential protections for them, with an emphasis on Black women, who are most likely to be employed while pregnant.

The Supreme Court sided with Young, which established a new legal standard — but there was a caveat: a pregnant worker could only request accommodations if they could prove a co-worker with a similar medical condition was accomodated.

The EEOC continued to receive pregnancy discrimination claims by the thousands after Young’s case. So, organizations like A Better Balance advocated for a new law — what became the PWFA — to fully protect pregnant workers.

“The onerous Young standard did not (and could not) skirt the fundamental problem with the PDA: it does not require employers to affirmatively provide accommodations to pregnant workers regardless of how they treat others,” the non-profit wrote in a recent PWFA report

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