The victims’ testimonials are heartbreaking. Yvette, a pregnant grocery clerk who miscarried and was fired when her boss demanded she do more heavy lifting. Guadalupe, a pregnant fast-food worker who was denied needed bathroom breaks, then fired. Hilda, a cashier who was denied the right to sit on a stool during her 8- to 10-hour shifts, because, as her boss explained, “You can’t get special treatment since men don’t get pregnant.”
These women represent a disturbing trend in workplaces across the nation. As more female employees comprise our workforce and expectant mothers stay on the job longer into their pregnancies, there are increasing reports of employers who refuse to accommodate these workers’ conditions.
Help is on the way. Last week, thanks to the work of sponsor Rep. Mary Flowers (D-Chicago), the Illinois House approved House Bill 8, the “Pregnant Workers Fairness Act,” which ensures that pregnant workers are not forced out of their jobs or denied reasonable job modifications to allow them to continue working. The legislation — which promotes the health and economic security of pregnant women, their babies and their families — is championed by Gov. Pat Quinn and now goes to the Illinois Senate.
The only time this was addressed at the federal level was when President Jimmy Carter signed the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978, banning discrimination against pregnant workers. Times have changed. The percentage of women in the workforce has exploded. Thanks to modern medicine, two-thirds of first-time mothers work while pregnant (nearly double the number who worked in the 1960s). And eight of 10 women now work into their final two months of pregnancy.
Sadly, the number of pregnancy discrimination cases filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has increased by 71 percent since 1992, and 40 percent of full-time low-wage workers may not decide when to take breaks.
This is about human rights, civil rights and economic justice. Some employers accommodate employees who are hurt on the job or have physical disabilities, yet won’t make minor modifications in job descriptions or workplace conditions for a pregnant worker. Some soon-to-be-mothers are their household’s sole breadwinner and sorely need the health care benefits they have earned.
Under HB 8, employers must provide reasonable accommodations, such as more frequent water and bathroom breaks. Full- and part-time workers could request less physically-taxing duties and more flexibility in their schedules. According to a National Women’s Law Center study (“It Shouldn’t Be A Heavy Lift: Fair Treatment for Pregnant Workers”), these reforms help the bottom line: Worker morale, diversity and retention all increase as absenteeism drops. The cost of modification is modest.
An effort to modernize the 1978 law has stalled in Congress, so some states are moving ahead. It’s time for Illinois to join them.
This would be a welcome and meaningful step forward for our state…just in time for Mother’s Day.
Cristal Thomas is the deputy governor of Illinois and Gov. Quinn’s point person on women’s health issues.