By Tara Murtha
For all the talk we hear from leaders of the Pennsylvania General Assembly about the sacredness of pregnancy and motherhood, you may be surprised to learn some of the same lawmakers quietly and steadfastly refuse to help protect the health of pregnant Pennsylvanians.
It’s been a decade now since we began calling on the General Assembly to pass a bill to fill gaps in federal pregnancy discrimination law. The Pennsylvania Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (PPWFA), as it’s known, would ensure covered employers permit pregnant Pennsylvanians to access temporary, reasonable workplace accommodations related to pregnancy, childbirth, and related conditions.
The temporary accommodations we’re talking about are usually absurdly minor. Typical accommodations requests entail permitting a pregnant employee to have an extra bathroom break, carry a water bottle, or lean on a stool behind a cash register.
Employer refusal of such basic requests is an insidious and common form of pregnancy discrimination which, 44 years after the federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act was signed into law, remains a threat to financial security for pregnant people unjustly pushed out of their jobs. It is also an acute health risk for those who comply out of fear of losing their job.
As the New York Times has reported, women with physically strenuous jobs such as nurses and teachers have reported suffering injuries, premature labor, and miscarriage after being denied reasonable accommodations.
In the General Assembly, the majority party decides what bills get scheduled for a vote and which ones are simply ignored until the session ends—a system that protects those lawmakers from having to reveal their position to constituents on issues such as, in this case, if pregnant people should be allowed to drink more water at work.
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The Pennsylvania PWFA has been introduced five sessions in a row but has never been scheduled for a vote. (This session the bills are House Bill 990 and Senate Bill 716.)
Due to this inaction, pregnancy discrimination complaints are rising in Pennsylvania while decreasing across the country as most other states have already passed this legislation. Recently, we expanded our direct representation of pregnancy discrimination clients to try to meet the need but we’re chasing an impossible goal: We simply can’t help every person navigate problems that should be fixed by better policy.
The General Assembly continued their studious refusal to protect pregnant women through the pandemic, a decision that deprived many pregnant Pennsylvanians of ways to avoid unnecessary exposure to COVID-19.
And so we spent most of the pandemic having to advise the pregnant Pennsylvanians who called us for help that their options for protecting themselves depended on where they lived. Philadelphia implemented a local ordinance that provides these protections, and Pittsburgh passed a similar bill that covers some city workers.
Suburban and rural Pennsylvanians, however, remain at the mercy—or lack of mercy—of the state Legislature.
In July, the majority party has made it clear they’re more interested in meeting in the middle of the night to scheme how to force women to carry unwanted pregnancies than voting to stop employers from firing us over it in broad daylight.
At this point, there’s more reason to hope for relief from the U.S. Congress than the General Assembly—or at least there should be.
U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., has championed the federal Pregnant Workers Fairness Act since he introduced it in 2012. It’s taken six legislative sessions to get here, but the federal Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (PWFA) has finally gained momentum. Last May, the PWFA passed the U.S. House 315 – 101. In August, it quickly passed out of the U.S. Senate Health Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, which meant the bill was ready to be scheduled for a full Senate vote and final passage.
Now, another year has passed.
Meanwhile, in a post-Roe United States, at least 13 states have effectively already banned abortion. And anti-abortion lawmakers are working to ban abortion in more states in the near future, including Pennsylvania, where a constitutional amendment to strip our reproductive rights out of the state constitution just passed the first of two sessions it must pass before it can go on the ballot next year.
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Leaders of the Pennsylvania General Assembly have made it clear they don’t care about pregnant people. What’s unclear is why the U.S. Congress is sitting on legislation.
Where’s the vote? What is holding it up?
We thank Senator Casey for leading the effort to pass the federal Pregnant Workers Fairness Act and urge him to work with leadership to fulfill his promise to prioritize the safety, health, and economic security of pregnant people. Roe has already fallen, and we are out of time.
Tara Murtha is Director of Strategic Communications at Women’s Law Project, a non-profit public interest legal organization working to defend and advance the rights of women, girls, and LGBTQ+ in Pennsylvania and beyond.