Bring up a stool

By Patricia Kasten | The Compass | February 15, 2022

My first full-time job was in a retail store. One of my fellow employees was pregnant and approaching the end of her nine months. All of us took turns helping her carry heavy boxes, pick things up off the floor and get extra bathroom breaks. The manager also made sure she had a stool at the register.

So, with that example, I assumed all workplaces made such accommodations for pregnant women. But, it turns out, that is not always the case, especially in larger work facilities.

According to A Better Balance, a national nonprofit worker advocacy group, 30 states have accommodations codified in law to help pregnant workers. Wisconsin is not one of these.

This is where the federal government comes in, hoping to make things more uniform.

The U.S. Senate is currently considering S.B. 1486, the “Pregnant Workers Fairness Act.” With support from churches, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and various women’s rights groups, the bill would require employers with at least 15 workers to provide temporary “reasonable accommodations” to pregnant employees. These accommodations include more frequent breaks, reassignment of hazardous duties, being allowed to have a water bottle at workstations and being offered schedule changes. The bill would affect all pregnant workers, but will thus especially benefit those in lower-paying production jobs and women of color who work in facilities like packaging plants and at assembly work.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has endorsed S.B. 1486. While there had been some controversial language in earlier versions of the bill (especially the House of Representatives’ version, H.R. 1065), on Aug. 9, the USCCB endorsed the “express legislative text of S.B. 1486 as reported out by the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions on Tuesday, Aug. 3, 2021.” 

In January 2022, the USCCB issued a background letter on S.B. 1486. The letter noted that, “Without these modifications, workers are left with the difficult decision to either compromise their health and the health of their child or to compromise their financial stability and career by leaving their job or taking unpaid leave.”

A recent Catholic News Service (CNS) story noted that Sen. Bob Casey Jr., (D-Pa.), a Catholic, introduced S.B. 1486 and has worked with Sen. Bill Cassidy, (R-La.), a physician, to build support for the bill. “The premise of the bill is very simple: Workers should be given simple and reasonable accommodations while they’re pregnant, like a water bottle, a stool to sit on or a better-fitting uniform,” Casey said in a statement emailed to CNS.

S.B. 1486 builds on the “Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978,” which made it illegal for an employer to fire a pregnant worker, but still left areas of confusion for both employees and employers, and these have led to forced unpaid leave or even termination. The new law, already passed by the House of Representatives in May 2021, will remove many ambiguities.

Ingrid Delgado, domestic policy adviser in the USCCB Office of Domestic Social Development, told CNS that the bishops’ support for the measure falls in line with long-standing Catholic social teaching.

“What the bill does,” she explained, “is it addresses the gap that exists in current law where women can be terminated, women can be forced to take leave because the employer can deny accommodation.”

The Wisconsin Catholic Conference also supports the bill, executive director Kim Vercauteren told The Compass, noting that it fits well with the church’s pro-life stand. Vercauteren added that this bill has connections to the current abortion case, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, before the U.S. Supreme Court. She said that if the high court restricts, or even overturns the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision on abortion, “this is the next forefront of being pro-life, from the child perspective: helping women manage their pregnancies and then helping them with their young families. That will be part of the next frontier.”

Passage of S.B. 1486 will be a step forward but, for me, it will be a warm reminder of the past. Back then, I didn’t realize I had such a forward-thinking and pro-life employer.

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