WASHINGTON, DC – DECEMBER 01: Advocates, legislators, and pregnant workers rally on Capitol Hill in support of The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act on December 01, 2022 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Paul Morigi/Getty Images for A Better Balance)
By Margaret H. Zhang and Allison Jones
At this point in the climate crisis, most of us know that extreme heat is a major health risk. Heat is a leading cause of U.S. weather-related deaths, with heat illness manifesting as anything from heat rash to fatal heat stroke. This summer, like many recent climate crisis–era summers, is projected to be hotter than average.
But the risks are worse for pregnant people, who are more vulnerable to extreme temperatures. In extreme heat, pregnant people are more likely to be hospitalized. Extreme heat exposure also has been associated with a host of adverse birth outcomes, such as miscarriage, stillbirths, preterm birth, low birthweight, birth defects, and infant mortality.
Though some lucky pregnant people can escape the climate crisis–level heat by resting and staying cool indoors, the reality in our country is that most pregnant people have to work.
Unlike other countries, the United States does not provide universal child benefits that would help with the significant costs of pregnancy-related medical care and of caring for a new child; most pregnant people need to work while pregnant to save money for those expenses. Many pregnant people must continue working to maintain their employer-sponsored medical insurance coverage.
The U.S. also explicitly requires some low-income pregnant people to work to receive benefits under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program.
This all means that pregnant people may have to put their health—and their pregnancies’ health—at risk. Even during an extreme heat event, pregnant waitresses might have to attend patrons in a restaurant’s patio or in a beer garden, pregnant farmworkers might have to bear the heat outside, and pregnant amusement park attendants might have to process admissions to an outdoor attraction.
Fortunately for some of them, the new nationwide Pregnant Workers Fairness Act takes effect later this month, on Tuesday June 27, 2023.
If hot temperatures at work will put a pregnant worker or her pregnancy at risk, the act now allows her to request a reasonable accommodation: temporary reassignment to an indoor position, a modified work schedule to avoid the hottest parts of the day, or maybe just break time to avoid unhealthy levels of exertion.
The act is a welcome reprieve for Pennsylvania workers after a decade of inaction from the Pennsylvania General Assembly, where a state-level law had been introduced for five sessions in a row but never scheduled for a vote.
As the summer heat rises, pregnant workers should learn about their rights under the new Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, as well as the preexisting law that protects pregnant workers in Philadelphia. Assuming that the new act will function similarly to the Americans with Disabilities Act, which provides accommodations for disabled workers, pregnant workers should also:
- Take care to follow their employers’ procedures for requesting accommodations (check any employee handbooks and any employer policies),
- Know that they may need to provide medical documentation (if requested by their employer), and
- Make sure to request accommodations clearly and unambiguously (with written documentation if possible).
Pennsylvania lawmakers still have work to do to help pregnant workers, though. The new nationwide act leaves many pregnant workers behind. For instance, it does not apply to employers with fewer than fifteen employees—meaning that many agricultural employers (e.g., farms), whose workers generally work outside, are not covered under the act.
To close this gap, the General Assembly should quickly move to pass the Pennsylvania Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, which would ensure that, even if a pregnant worker works for a small employer, they can take steps to keep themselves safe during climate crisis–level heat this summer.
Margaret H. Zhang lives in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and is a visiting assistant professor at Rutgers Law School in Camden; her research examines issues related to pregnancy, lactation, and the workplace. Allison Jones is a law student at Rutgers Law School.
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