Understanding the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act:  A Comprehensive Guide

By Douglas Lipsky

In the rapidly evolving world of employment law, it’s crucial to stay up-to-date with the latest legislative changes. Among these, the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (PWFA) stands out as a particularly significant development. Enacted to reinforce and enhance protections for pregnant workers, the PWFA addresses long-standing concerns about discrimination and workplace accommodations, thereby empowering pregnant employees across the nation.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 72% of women will become pregnant while employed at sometime in their lives. At the same time, 23% of pregnant women have thought about leaving their jobs due to a lack of reasonable accommodation or fear of discrimination from an employer during pregnancy. These statistics highlight the need for reasonable protections for pregnant women in the workplace.

Although several states have enacted similar protections, the PWFA has now unified these rights and responsibilities at a federal level, thereby ensuring a consistent and equitable approach throughout the United States. Given the Act’s broad implications for both employers and employees, understanding its provisions is important for everyone involved in the employment landscape.

Overview of the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act

The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act is designed to prohibit employment discrimination on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions. Inspired by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), it mandates that employers provide reasonable accommodations to employees affected by pregnancy or childbirth, unless it would impose an undue hardship on the employer’s business.

The Act, which goes into effect on June 27, 2023, applies only to accommodations. Other existing laws make it illegal to fire or discriminate against workers in other ways on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, or other related medical conditions.

It’s important to note that the PWFA applies to all “covered employers,” which includes public or private employers with 15 or more employees. This makes it a wide-reaching law with significant implications for employers and employees across the country. The passage of this Act has been lauded as a crucial step forward in ensuring equitable treatment of pregnant workers in the American workforce.

Right to Reasonable Accommodations

Under the PWFA, employees have the right to reasonable accommodations if they have a known limitation related to pregnancy, childbirth, or any related medical conditions. Importantly, these accommodations must be provided unless they cause undue hardship to the employer, which is defined as an action requiring significant difficulty or expense.

Reasonable accommodations under the PWFA are changes to a pregnant worker’s job or work environment that would enable them to continue performing their job. Examples of reasonable accommodations include providing workers with:

  • the ability to drink water or sit down on the job
  • closer parking
  • flexible hours 
  • appropriately sized uniforms and safety apparel
  • additional break time to use the bathroom, eat, and/or rest
  • the ability to take leave or time off to recover from childbirth 
  • the right to be excused from strenuous activities or activities that involve exposure to compounds not safe for pregnancy

Significantly, what counts as a reasonable accommodation can vary depending on the specific circumstances of the worker and the nature of the job.

Protection from Discrimination or Retaliation

The PWFA protects pregnant employees from discrimination based on their pregnancy. This means that employers cannot refuse to hire, demote, or fire a woman because she is pregnant or because they would need to make reasonable accommodations for her pregnancy-related conditions. Employers also cannot force a pregnant worker to take leave if another reasonable accommodation can be provided. In addition, they cannot require an employee to accept an accommodation without a discussion about the accommodation between the employer and the employee.

Another fundamental right under the PWFA is the protection from retaliation. Employers are not allowed to retaliate against a worker for requesting a reasonable accommodation. Accordingly, employers cannot punish or discriminate against a worker in any way for exercising her rights under the PWFA. This includes adverse actions like firing, demoting, harassing, or otherwise discriminating against the worker.

Enforcement and Remedies

If you believe your rights under the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act have been violated, it’s important to take immediate action. First, document all relevant incidents and gather any evidence that may support your claim. Then, report the violation to your employer or your company’s human resources department, following your company’s established procedures. If your employer fails to adequately address your concerns, you may choose to file a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal agency responsible for enforcing the laws against job discrimination. You may also wish to consult with an employment law attorney to explore potential legal remedies.

Understanding the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act is essential for both employees and employers to ensure a fair and equitable workplace. This law reinforces the idea that pregnancy should not be a barrier to employment opportunities, and that reasonable accommodations are both necessary and just. Whether you’re an employee seeking to understand your rights or an employer striving to maintain compliance, speak to an experienced employment lawyer to understand how the PWFA will impact you.

About the Author
Douglas Lipsky is a co-founding partner of Lipsky Lowe LLP. He has extensive experience in all areas of employment law, including discrimination, sexual harassment, hostile work environment, retaliation, wrongful discharge, breach of contract, unpaid overtime, and unpaid tips. He also represents clients in complex wage and hour claims, including collective actions under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act and class actions under the laws of many different states. If you have questions about this article, contact Douglas today.