As a certified midwife, I see up close every day how women and pregnant people, especially low-income women of color, face health barriers at work. With new data showing higher rates of preterm birth for those who contracted COVID-19 in the last trimester of pregnancy, our lawmakers must do all they can to ensure women and pregnant people are able to ask for the changes they need to remain healthy and working.
The Senate has an opportunity to do just that by bringing the bipartisan Pregnant Workers Fairness Act to a vote — but it hasn’t prioritized doing so. This bill would require employers to provide reasonable accommodations for pregnant and postpartum workers — such as light duty, temporary transfers, additional breaks and lactation accommodations — so long as those accommodations do not impose an undue hardship on employers.
Critically, the legislation will ensure pregnant and postpartum workers — in every corner of the country — are no longer placed on unpaid leave, or worse yet, fired, when they need a temporary workplace accommodation to protect their health and keep their paycheck.
At a time when we’re facing a Black maternal health crisis — Black women are three times more likely to die from a pregnancy-related cause than white women — delaying a vote on a bill to protect pregnant workers demonstrates a lack of urgency on the part of lawmakers to repair a deeply broken maternal health system. It’s a system that has and continues to disproportionately impact Black maternal health in catastrophic ways.
In September 2021, Sen. Chuck Schumer stood at a press conference alongside Black maternal health leaders and said, “The bottom line is that it is absolutely unacceptable that Black women in New York…are at an increased risk of complications, injury and death due to childbirth.”
While I appreciate his solidarity, actions speak louder than words.
Paid family and medical leave, closure of the Medicaid coverage gap, extension of the child tax credit, additional investments in child care, and provisions of what was known as the Black Maternal Health Momnibus Act all fell out of the final reconciliation bill — another sign that Congress has relegated the needs of working families to the back of the line.
The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act is one of the few pieces of maternal health legislation remaining this Congress that already passed in the House and has the votes to pass in the Senate.
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Yet we have yet to see it scheduled for a vote. The Senate’s inaction signals the continued deprioritization of women’s, especially Black women’s, needs.
Black women have the highest labor force participation rates of all women, and two-thirds of Black mothers are the equal, primary or sole breadwinners in their families. But for generations, Black women’s labor has been exploited, with centuries of racism and sexism driving overwork, occupational segregation into lower-paying industries, and a lack of workplace protections, including for pregnant workers. The structural racism Black women face at work, in conjunction with the racism experienced in so many different arenas, from housing to education and health care access, is one of the root causes of inequitable maternal health outcomes.
A recent report by Black Mamas Matter Alliance and A Better Balance documented a listening session with Black women leaders about the need for workplace accommodations and concluded that “while no single piece of legislation can end the systemic racism that contributes to the Black maternal health crisis, policies like the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act are an important step in addressing Black pregnant and postpartum people’s health, safety, dignity and economic security.”
I have seen firsthand the racism and sexism that Black women and pregnant people face at work and the resulting fear they have of requesting accommodations, even ones as simple as a chair for their workstation. This is no way for our country to treat women and pregnant people.
Thankfully, New York City already has a law in place similar to the federal Pregnant Workers Fairness Act. I have seen the difference that this kind of law makes in keeping pregnant and postpartum workers healthy and on the job, without fear of retaliation. Prior to the law’s passage, I routinely had pregnant patients come to me worried about how they would feed their families because their employer cut their pay or fired them after they asked for accommodations on the job.
Every pregnant and postpartum worker in this country deserves that same right, no matter where they live. Denial of accommodations can put heavy stress on pregnancies, stress that can lead to negative birth outcomes including preterm birth and low-birth weight. These outcomes are entirely preventable. We just need our lawmakers to care enough to do something about it.
Fynn is a certified midwife at Woodhull Medical Center and co-chair of NYC Midwives, an organization dedicated to promoting midwives and integrated midwifery practice.