CHICAGO – Pregnant workers are getting some relief as more states pass legislation to prevent discrimination in the workplace in addition to providing accommodations during their pregnancy.
Illinois specifically enacted a law that became effective Jan. 1, 2015 – the Pregnancy Accommodation Act. Illinois was recently joined by Colorado in passing such legislation that went into effect Aug. 10.
Legislation in Illinois, like Colorado, looks at protecting pregnant women by finding employers in violation for failing to provide reasonable accommodations for pregnant women or denying women employment if they are pregnant. Under the new law, employers can also be found in violation for forcing accommodations when they are not requested, forcing leave if reasonable accommodations are not available, and failing to reinstate an employee to her original position or an equivalent position upon return from maternity leave.
“The intended impact of the legislation is to help women remain in the workforce through pregnancy and childbirth and to help close the pay gap - or at least stop it from growing - based on women being forced to leave the labor market and re-enter it later, having lost any increases in pay during their time out of work,” Sara P. Yager, partner at Laner Muchin, Ltd. told the Cook County Record.
Several states have created similar legislation to protect pregnant women. In all of these states, the legislation offers some sort of reasonable accommodation such as longer and more frequent bathroom breaks, time off for doctor visits, longer and more frequent rest breaks, lighter duty positions or a temporary transfer
“Depending on the state, 'reasonable accommodations' vary, and most statutes have 'safety valves' for employers to deny an accommodation if it is going to cause an undue hardship to the employer,” said Yager. “However, in reality, the undue hardship test is not an easy standard for employers to meet.”
While the Pregnancy Accommodation Act became effective nearly 21 months ago, some employers may not be aware of its full details and what reasonable accommodations may mean to an employee who is pregnant.
“I think many employers are aware that they cannot discriminate against pregnant employees,” said Yager. “However, I do not think many employers, especially ones operating without a robust human resources department, are necessarily aware that Illinois passed a law specifically about pregnancy discrimination and reasonable accommodations.”
Since the inception of the Pregnancy Accommodation Act in Illinois, it’s hard to measure what the effects it has had for pregnant women, Yager said..
“From personal and anecdotal experience, I’ve heard of many employers using the new law as an educational tool for their operational teams, who may be more focused on running the business, to learn about the goals of their human resources teams, who may be more focused on acquiring and retaining talent, and how the teams can work together to align those goals when interacting with pregnant applicants and employees,” Yager said.
Yager said employers can operate under the new act in a variety of ways, from enacting new evaluative policies and procedures to having proactive management. But, according to Yager, it starts with a complete shift in mindset.
“For instance, instead of starting with the question of 'How do I run a business when this employee is pregnant and is, inevitably, going to be off work,' try starting with 'This person is pregnant and a great worker – how can I retain her,'” said Yager. “Often, this mindset shift leads to employers thinking more about creative, mutually agreeable ways to reasonably accommodate pregnant workers.”