The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act: What’s in it, what does it mean for Pennsylvanians?

Reflecting on the federal legislation, lawmakers in Harrisburg say that the policy will create uniform standards for employers and employees

By: - July 2, 2023 7:58 am

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)

A federal law providing pregnant workers with the right to reasonable accommodations in the workplace went into effect in late June. 

The Capital-Star talked to legal advocates and policymakers about what the act means for Pennsylvanians. 

What’s in the Act?

First introduced by U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., in 2012, the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act was enacted on June 27, 2023, and requires public and private sector employers with 15 or more employees to grant pregnant workers “reasonable accommodation” for limitations related to their pregnancy, such as permission to sit or stand while performing their job duties and altered break or shift schedules, unless it would pose an undue hardship for the employer.

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“This law is simple: It ensures that pregnant workers have the right to reasonable accommodations, like a stool or water bottle, while at work. Women in Pennsylvania and around the country can breathe easy knowing they do not have to choose between their jobs and a healthy pregnancy,” Casey said in a June 27 statement when the bill took effect. “It took 10 years of fighting to get this passed, but today, the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act is now the law of the land.” 

The PWFA is enforced by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, meaning workers can file charges of discrimination directly with the federal agency. 

The PWFA prohibits a covered employer from requiring an employee to accept an accommodation without a discussion about the accommodation, denying a job or employment opportunity to a qualified employee or applicant based on the person’s need for a reasonable accommodation, and requiring an employee to take leave if another reasonable accommodation can be provided that would let the employee keep working, according to the EEOC. 

“The EEOC stands ready to support employers as they carry out the PWFA’s directives and to support workers in receiving the accommodations they are entitled to under the PWFA,” EEOC Chairperson Charlotte Burrows said in June. 

What it Means for Pennsylvanians

Reflecting on the federal legislation, lawmakers in Harrisburg say that the policy will create uniform standards for employers and employees.

La’Tasha Mayes poses for a portrait in East Liberty (Pittsburgh City Paper photo by Jared Wickerham).

“The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act is an important and long overdue policy for our nation as we seek to end gender-based discrimination, especially in the workplace,” state Rep. La’Tasha D. Mayes, D-Allegheny, told the Capital-Star. 

Mayes, a former reproductive justice advocate, said the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act is “an example of a policy that prioritizes health and well-being together with workers’ rights.”

Supporters of the PWFA say that while enacting the law is a significant start, it is a policy floor, requiring state-level legislation to close any gaps. 

The Women’s Law Project, a legal nonprofit based in Philadelphia, has been advocating for pregnant workers’ protection bills at the federal and state levels for about a decade, arguing that eliminating pregnancy discrimination is also a matter of maternal health, worker’s rights, and racial justice.

“The federal PWFA significantly improves legal protections for pregnant workers, we still need to pass the Pennsylvania Pregnant Workers Fairness Act,” Amal Bass, policy director and interim co-executive director for Women’s Law Project, said in a statement.

She added that a potential Pennsylvania Pregnant Workers Fairness Act “would cover more people and provide more remedies.”

Legal experts also pointed out that law’s language doesn’t supersede existing protections and anti-discrimination laws at the state or local level. 

“The federal law specifically says that it does not displace or supersede more protective state or local laws,” Sophia Elliot, an attorney at the Women’s Law Project, explained. “In Philadelphia, for example, we have an ordinance that provides for reasonable accommodations for pregnancy. At the local level, it works really well, it has not proven burdensome for employers, again, these are very reasonable accommodations that are covered under the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, and the local ordinance.”

While there isn’t any legislation similar to or building on the PWFA before the Legislature right now, advocates say they hope the federal policy will serve as a catalyst for change here in the Commonwealth. 

“It’s always best practice to enshrine rights protections in state law,” Bass said. 

In addition to state-level protections, Elliot added that paid family leave is paramount to further supporting pregnant workers and their families. 

“Since the U.S. is one of the only countries that doesn’t have any national paid family or medical leave policy, Pennsylvanians urgently need a state-based family leave insurance program,” Elliot said, citing House Bill 181, a bill sponsored by state Rep. Dan Miller, D-Allegheny, that would establish a family and medical leave Insurance program and the family and medical Leave Insurance fund in Pennsylvania. 

“We can always do better,” Elliot said, “for example, providing paid family leave, and also covering smaller employers.”

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Cassie Miller
Cassie Miller

A native Pennsylvanian, Cassie Miller worked for various publications across the Midstate before joining the team at the Pennsylvania Capital-Star. In her previous roles, she has covered everything from local sports to the financial services industry.