Editorial: Legal protection for pregnant workers in Massachusetts 

  • Former state representative Ellen Story first filed legislation in 2015 to protect pregnant workers in Massachusetts. The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act was signed this week by Gov. Charlie Baker. SUBMITTED PHOTO

Monday, July 31, 2017

Pregnant workers in Massachusetts finally have the legal protection against discrimination that they have long deserved, in large part due to the advocacy by MotherWoman in Hadley and former state representative Ellen Story of Amherst.

Gov. Charlie Baker on Thursday signed the Massachusetts Pregnant Workers Fairness Act that was approved by the Legislature earlier in July. The law guarantees reasonable accommodations and safe conditions in the workplace for pregnant women. Employers may not discriminate against, fire or refuse to hire a woman due to her pregnancy or any related condition. New mothers also will be entitled to take time off for childbirth recovery and to use private space at work for expressing breast milk.

“No expecting mother should have to choose between a healthy pregnancy and a paycheck. This legislation (ensures) that women’s medical needs are addressed without imposing undue burden on employees throughout Massachusetts,” Senate President Stanley Rosenberg, of Amherst, said in a statement.

Massachusetts is the 22nd state to adopt such protections for pregnant workers, which are needed because most normal pregnancies do not qualify as disabilities under state law. Some temporary conditions resulting from pregnancy are covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act, but it does not provide blanket protection against discrimination. Neither does the federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act, which only prohibits the firing of a woman solely because she is pregnant.

While many employers voluntarily offer accommodations to pregnant workers, the law is directed at those who do not. That’s important because an estimated three-quarters of the women in the United States workforce will be employed during a pregnancy, and more than half of pregnant women and new mothers in Massachusetts remain working, according to MotherWoman.

The legislation was first filed in 2015 by Story, at the urging of that advocacy group for mothers and their families. “I am grateful that it’s finally going to become law,” Story said last week. “It took much longer than it than it should have, and it’s still amazing we need a law like this in 2017.”

She pointed out that many of the measures guaranteed by the law are simple adjustments, such as providing a stool for a pregnant woman who otherwise would have to stand, and limiting the weight she is required to lift.

Linda O’Connell, acting executive director of MotherWoman, told The Boston Globe, “We’re thrilled that the Massachusetts Legislature has seen the bipartisan light to be able to get behind a health bill that’s really moms and apple pie. It is an absolutely positive measure that will only help women, families and the entire community.”

Lisa Newman of Northampton was among the women who testified about the bill before the Joint Committee on Labor and Workforce Development. She became pregnant soon after starting work as a systems analyst at Smith College and described how she was subjected to work conditions so hostile that she was afraid to take bathroom breaks after she was cited by a supervisor for being late to a meeting. (Smith officials have disputed her assertions and say that the college takes seriously the rights of employees and allegations of discrimination.)

“I know firsthand how the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act will protect pregnant women and their babies,” Newman said recently.

Employers are now barred from taking adverse action against a pregnant woman who requests or uses a reasonable accommodation while performing her job, which include more frequent and longer paid or unpaid breaks; modified equipment; and temporary transfer, restructuring or lighter duty.

Company officials are required to have timely discussions with current and potential workers to shape reasonable accommodations. There is an exemption clause, but an employer must prove “undue hardship” resulting from significant difficulties or expenses.

The law takes effect April 1, allowing businesses time to prepare. That was among the compromises reached between MotherWoman and the Associated Industries of Massachusetts, which opposed previous versions of the bill but supported this year’s legislation.

These overdue common-sense protections will make it easier for women to juggle the demands of childbearing or new motherhood while continuing to work.