SPRINGFIELD — Quit your job or lose your baby.
That’s what Rosaura Villanueva, a 31-year-old Chicago woman from Brighton Park, heard from her supervisor when she shared that she was pregnant.
But Villanueva, and those in her shoes, now have a reason to hope for change in the workplace: A bill in Springfield aiming to overcome discrimination against pregnant employees surfaced in the House, much to the chagrin of the business community.
Villanueva said that these new protections are necessary for pregnant employees, that they could have saved her from experiencing great loss.
After repeatedly unloading trucks, lifting and carrying heavy boxes and packages, Villanueva, who couldn’t afford to quit her job at a shipping company, did lose her unborn child.
“I felt very depressed and angry at the same time,” Villanueva said. “I was angry at them. I’m dependent on this job to bring in income.”
When she and her husband found themselves expecting again, Villanueva felt conflicted.
“I was really happy, but I was afraid of telling my supervisor,” Villanueva said. “For me to get pregnant again was scary. You don’t know what to expect. Coworkers will sometimes try to help out, but supervisors want to force you to quit because they don’t want to deal with that.”
Villanueva’s situation is one that Rep. Mary Flowers, D-Chicago, hopes to prevent through her new legislation.
In an expansive rewrite of the state’s Human Rights Act, Flowers sponsored a bill that would make it a civil rights violation if an employer fails to provide “reasonable accommodations” for all working pregnant women, including part-time and full-time employees.
“This would allow any pregnant woman to have the same breaks that a man would have if his back were hurting,” Flowers said. “They’d have the same consideration — nothing special, nothing added.”
Flowers said the way things are now, pregnant women are being treated as second-class citizens in the workplace.
“A woman should not have to apologize because she’s pregnant,” Flowers said. “She shouldn’t fear losing her job.”
Flowers’ bill states that all employers, no matter the number of employees, must provide “reasonable accommodations” to conditions relating to pregnancy, childbirth or related medical conditions. This means allowing for things like frequent bathroom breaks, water breaks, seating, assistance with manual labor, less physically demanding duties, adjustment of the work schedule, time off to recover from childbirth, leave and break space for breast feeding.
However, these requests, and those like it, cannot cause “undue hardship” to a company under Flowers’ bill; accommodations cannot be “unreasonably expensive or disruptive” to the business.
Just as with other human rights violations, unsatisfied employees pressing the matter would take private action against their employer and present their case before a commission in order to seek actual damages for injury or loss sustained, to address hiring, back pay, promotion or fringe benefit issues and to have their attorney fees covered.
Ed Yohnka, the communications and public policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union, said House Bill 8 works to prevent discrimination against pregnant employees in a practical way.
“We’re hoping for very basic and really modest kinds of modifications: something as simple as letting someone sit on a stool instead of standing for eight hours, or as simple as having a bottle of water during work hours.”
But Flowers’ measure isn’t as simple as it seems, according to Jay Shattuck, executive director of the Illinois Chamber of Commerce’s Employment Law Council.
He said pregnant women already have protection under state and federal law and that adding more “legalese” would hurt employers, who would see “lawsuits galore” over the broad wording in Flowers’ bill.
Furthermore, Shattuck, who said he hasn’t seen any hard data concerning the mistreatment of pregnant women in the workplace, said the bill is inherently offensive to the business community.
“The premise of this bill is that employers are bad, evil people: That’s the kind of attitude that drives employers out of the state,” Shattuck said. “This is just another proverbial straw on the camel’s back. It’s one more thing, one more thing, one more thing.”
Although Shattuck said he’s not opposed to working things out to afford pregnant women more protection in the workplace, he thinks Flowers’ bill has a long way to go before it’s ready.
Despite these objections, Flowers said she’s “optimistic” about HB 8 and plans to call a vote on it in the House next week.
Villanueva, who now has a child, said she looks forward to the day where women don’t have to face the discrimination she did at work:
“Hopefully we can get a law protecting us women who are pregnant, so we can bring a better future for our kids, for our newborns.”