Opinion: It's time for the Senate to take action to pass the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act

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Why would Republican lawmakers take issue with a bill that would help protect pregnant people in the workplace?

Over a year ago, the House of Representatives passed the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act. As abortion access is likely to soon to be eliminated or severely curtailed in many states, it's time for the Senate to do the same. 

Efforts to pass such legislation languished for nearly a decade when Republicans controlled the House. However, when House Democrats brought the bill to the floor in 2021, it passed with bipartisan support, with 111 Republicans voting for it and 101 against it. It's difficult to see what exceptions Republican lawmakers take with the bill, which seeks to provide protections for pregnant people in the workplace and require employers to make reasonable accommodations for workers "affected by pregnancy, childbirth, or related conditions."

Those accommodations can be quite modest. As Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-NY), one of the bill's sponsors, explained, they can be as simple as "a glass of water, a stool, an extended break." Other common accommodations for pregnant people include assistance from co-workers to lift things, allowing someone to eat a small snack during working hours to alleviate morning sickness, and moving a workstation closer to the restrooms. 

The Senate has not yet taken up the bill. A diverse group of 110 faith leaders in New York has urged Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to bring the bill to the floor in that chamber, pointing out it is "immoral for an employer to force a worker to choose between a healthy pregnancy and earning a living."

As the Supreme Court appears likely to overturn Roe v. Wade, ensuring a safe and healthy workplace will be critical as more people are forced into pregnancy. This issue is especially acute in states with the most abortion restrictions, which are also the most likely to enact abortion bans if Roe v. Wade is overturned. Twenty-three states are poised to ban abortion if that occurs.

Many of those same states, while prepared to force people to remain pregnant, have taken very few steps to make life easier for pregnant people. Indeed, states with the most abortion restrictions also have some of the worst maternal and child health outcomes.

Recently, the Associated Press analyzed several health and wellness metrics for pregnant people and children, such as birth weight, access to prenatal care, and the percentage of children who live in poverty. They found that those states set to ban abortion also have some of the worst health outcomes. For example, Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi have the highest percentage of babies with low birth weights, while Texas, Indiana, and Mississippi have the greatest rate of people who receive no prenatal care early in pregnancy. Ensuring safe workplaces for pregnant people can create better health outcomes, a necessity in states that otherwise lack a commitment to providing care.

Further, many states with strong opposition to abortion have few laws that help people navigate working while pregnant. For example, Texas does not offer paid sick leave and has not expanded family or medical leave beyond what federal law requires. Ohio offers neither paid sick leave nor reasonable accommodations to pregnant workers. Mississippi — the state that passed the fifteen-week ban now before the Supreme Court — has some of the fewest protections for pregnant people and infants. The state hasn't accepted federal funds to expand Medicaid, a move that would ensure better postpartum coverage for Mississippi residents. It neither provides any additional unpaid leave past the 12 weeks required by federal law, nor provides paid sick leave. It doesn't even require that worksites be smoke-free.

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) has been pushing for the Senate to hold a hearing on the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act. Brown stated that since there are no legal requirements for reasonable accommodations, many pregnant people are forced out of jobs or take unpaid leave during their pregnancy. Further, he noted, this bill "will mean healthier pregnancies and healthier babies, and it will mean more women are able to continue providing for their families while they're pregnant."

There's simply no reason any member of the Senate should refuse to vote for such a thing — especially Republicans who consider themselves part of the "pro-life" party.