SHOULD A PREGNANT worker expect her employer to offer “reasonable” relief from her workload or from certain tasks?
Elizabeth Guyer, a former nurse practitioner who worked in Harvard University’s student health care system, thought so. In 2008, a pregnant Guyer expressed concerns to her supervisor about a plan to increase from 14 to 16 the number of patients she saw during an eight-hour day.
As a 36-year-old woman expecting her first child and already feeling ill, Guyer worried about standing for long periods of time without getting breaks or a regular lunch.
The Arlington resident said her supervisor told her that, if she could not see two extra patients, the office would find someone who could and she could clear out her desk “right now.” The meeting lasted about five minutes. “I was in shock,” Guyer said.
Guyer later approached a higher-up who was sympathetic, but said that the department was already interviewing for her job.
“This is a large university with very educated people in a health care setting,” said Guyer, who left a month later and has not worked in the field since. “In my mind, I wasn’t asking for a lot.”
The treatment of pregnant workers in the workplace is garnering increasing attention in Massachusetts and nationally. In December, the US Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Peggy Young v United Parcel Service, a case that examines whether pregnant women should receive the same workplace consideration that injured workers and the disabled receive.
Thirteen states, including California, Connecticut, and New Jersey, as well as five cities (New York, Philadelphia, Washington, DC, Providence, and Central Falls, Rhode Island) require employers to offer “reasonable accommodations” to pregnant workers.
And now two Massachusetts lawmakers are proposing the first-ever Pregnant Workers Fairness Act. The legislation would prohibit Massachusetts employers from denying pregnant workers reasonable accommodations unless the employer can provide evidence of “undue hardship” on the business or program.
The measure also would prohibit employers from retaliating against pregnant workers who request accommodations or force them to accept modifications the woman feels are unsuitable.
Although Massachusetts has laws that address maternity leave, no comparable provisions exist to protect working women with pregnancy, childbirth, or related conditions, according to Sen. Joan Lovely, a Salem Democrat, and Rep. Ellen Story, an Amherst Democrat, who introduced the legislation.
“Some women may not be able to do the job exactly as they were hired to do,” said Lovely. “For this short amount of time of pregnancy, nine months, an employer should be able to accommodate them in some way.”
Lovely, who has three children, said that most working women have “fairly routine pregnancies” and don’t need special arrangements. She has heard from employers who are concerned about the measure’s “undue hardship” provisions.
The bill currently stipulates that, depending on the size of the business and the number of employees, anything that creates “significant difficulty or expense” could be a burden on the employer. It is up to an individual employer to demonstrate that the business cannot afford the specific type of accommodation requested by the employee.
“Those decisions would have to made on a case-by-case basis based on what is reasonable for the employer,” said Story. “If it is a full-time worker who wanted to go part time for the last four months, that might be very difficult.”
Harvard University did not immediately respond to requests for comment. The Associated Industries of Massachusetts, one of the state’s largest business lobbying groups, declined to comment. “AIM is still in the process of sifting through the details of hundreds of bills at the moment,” a spokesman said.
Elizabeth Gedmark, a staff attorney with A Better Balance, a New York-based, national family law advocacy organization, said that, although there are federal pregnancy discrimination laws on the books, there are some loopholes that employers have used to avoid providing modest accommodations.
According to Gedmark, there is a need to clarify existing discrimination laws to make sure that “women are treated fairly.” She adds: “In a lot of states, they are passing with widespread bipartisan support, often unanimously, which you don’t see very often with legislators. We haven’t seen really too much opposition.”
The Massachusetts bill has nearly 50 co-sponsors, but Rep. Susannah Whipps Lee, an Athol Republican, is still on the fence. “I really can’t conceive of not giving a pregnant woman a chair or any other accommodation if she were to need it,” said Whipps Lee, who co-owns her family’s water and wastewater equipment company. “I also have a hard time conceiving the need for the government to tell me to do that as a business owner.”
A 2013 National Partnership for Woman and Families/Childbirth Connection survey of 1,072 pregnant women and new mothers found that 61 percent of women were self-employed or working for others during pregnancy. More than half worked full-time.
Typical modifications women requested included more frequent breaks, especially to use the restroom, scheduling changes, or time off to allow for medical visits, and shifting duties to reduce time spent standing or lifting.
“Some of the statutes specifically talk about transfers to less strenuous positions for those who are in more heavy–duty workforces,” said Gedmark. “These bills are all about making sure that a woman does not have to sacrifice her health when she is pregnant so that she can stay employed.”