New laws protect pregnant workers, but red states are suing over abortion laws

Natasha Jackson was four months pregnant when she told her manager she was expecting a baby. The year was 2008, and Jackson was an accountant at a furniture rental company in Charleston, South Carolina, and the only woman there.

“I actually hid my pregnancy for as long as I could because I was afraid of what might happen,” she said.

When her doctor advised her not to lift more than 25 pounds, her employer did not allow her to temporarily move to a position where she did not have to lift furniture, even though such positions were available, she added. She was forced to go on leave and then lost her job. Her marriage fell apart and she spent time after giving birth in a halfway house.

“These difficulties affected me years later and took away the joy of being pregnant,” Jackson said. “They made me feel guilty and ashamed for having a child.”

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Jackson, now a 41-year-old mother of four who owns her own cleaning company, has worked with interest groups for years to fight for better laws to protect pregnant workers. Last year, she was invited to speak at a White House event marking the transition Pregnant Workers Fairness Actthe fresh anti-discrimination law in the workplace, which she advocated.

But now the law, passed with broad bipartisan support, has fueled a fierce fight over abortion rights between Republican-led states and the federal government.

The bill fills gaps in state and federal protections by requiring employers with 15 or more employees to provide “reasonable accommodations” to pregnant workers, workers who have recently given birth or who have related medical conditions – unless the employer can prove that doing so would cause an “undue hardship.” ”for business.

Accommodations may include allowing the employee to take extra bathroom breaks, carry a water bottle, or sit instead of standing while working. After years of lobbying by nonprofits and business groups, federal legislation was passed in December 2022 came into force Last June.

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In the rulemaking process, the Biden administration included abortion as a “related medical condition” covered by the law. This means that workers seeking abortion care can ask their employers for accommodations, such as time off work to make an appointment or recover.

This year, 19 Republican attorneys general — including from Jackson’s home state of South Carolina — sued the administration over that interpretation.

AGs argue that the Biden administration is forcing abortion facilities even in states where abortions are illegal.

“Under this radical interpretation of the PWFA, business owners will face federal lawsuits if they do not allow employee abortions, even if those abortions are illegal under state law,” Republican Arkansas Attorney General Tim Griffin said in a statement. statement last month, announcing a lawsuit filed by Arkansas and 16 other Republican-led states.

But some supporters say the lawsuit threatens protections for all pregnant workers covered by the fresh law – not just the miniature group of people who need abortion care.

“These states are cutting off their noses to spite their faces,” said Elizabeth Gedmark, an attorney and vice president of A Better Balance, a national nonprofit that provides legal services and has long called for a national Pregnant Workers Fairness Act.

“These attacks have very real consequences on people’s lives and their economic security and health,” she said.

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Jackson worries that the lawsuit could result in fewer workers having access to the care they need to stay robust.

“[Workers] “should have the right to proper medical care during pregnancy, after childbirth, after miscarriage or abortion,” she said. “I find it quite ridiculous that some employers want so much control over their employees to the point that they feel they have the right to jeopardize their job security due to pregnancy or anything related to it.”

Into a skirmish

After Congress passed the Pregnant Employee Fairness Act, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a federal agency known as the EEOC, had to develop a set of rules explaining what employers can and cannot do under the law.

That’s why last summer the EEOC asked the public for feedback on the proposed rules for the fresh law. More than 100,000 comments were submitted within two months.

The flood of comments stemmed from opinions on whether the EEOC should include abortion in its definition of “pregnancy, childbirth, or related conditions” that are covered by the fresh law.

According to the EEOC, the enormous majority contained nearly identical comments. About 54,000 comments urged the EEOC to exclude abortion, and about 40,000 supported its inclusion.

In a 3-2 vote, the EEOC ultimately adopted fresh rules that included abortion care in the definition of covered conditions under the law. The regulations are to enter into force on June 18.

But in April, a week after the EEOC’s announcement final rulesThe 17-state coalition of GOP attorneys general argued in its lawsuit that “incorrect interpretation” The Fair Treatment of Pregnant Workers Act creates an “abortion accommodation order.”

“When the bill was passed by Congress, it was clearly understood that it did not address abortion at all and the text of the bill did not address abortion,” said Tennessee Attorney General Jonathan Skrmetti, who is co-leading the lawsuit with Griffin of Arkansas. .

Skrmetti and other Republican attorneys general point to comments made by lawmakers during debate on the measure that appeared to signal that Congress did not intend to impose abortion requirements in states where abortions would be illegal.

Pennsylvania Democratic Senator Bob Casey, who sponsored the Pregnant Workers Act, he said during the debate that the EEOC “may not promulgate any regulation requiring abortion leave, nor does the statute authorize the EEOC to require employers to provide abortions in violation of state law.”

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The 15 other states joining the lawsuit are Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Utah and West Virginia.

More states have joined the fight. In mid-May, the attorneys general of Louisiana and Mississippi, both Republicans, filed her own lawsuit questioning the same provision.

In February, a federal judge in Texas blocked the EEOC from accepting complaints filed by Texas state workers under the Pregnant Employee Fairness Act. It was a victory for Republican Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who got it done defendant the Biden administration last year.

Security compromised

Skrmetti, Tennessee’s attorney general, believes the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act is a good law.

“The resolution was passed with a degree of bipartisanship rarely seen,” Stateline said, “and undermines the efforts of Congress and the will of the people when agencies adopt and change laws without the authority of the people’s representatives.”

However, A Better Balance’s Gedmark said there has been decades of legal precedent including abortion as a related medical condition for pregnant workers. The Pregnancy Discrimination Act, a federal law enacted in 1978, prohibits sex discrimination based on pregnancy, childbirth or related medical conditions – a definition that the EEOC has long interpreted to include abortion.

Supporters of the fresh Pregnant Employees Fairness Act and EEOC rules fear the lawsuits will cause confusion for employers and employees. Gedmark said there are concerns the court could invalidate more laws beyond those that mention abortion.

Skrmetti does not believe the 17-state lawsuit will harm legal protections for pregnant, postpartum and breastfeeding workers.

“The optimal solution would be to repeal some of the provisions related to abortion that are not supported by the act,” he said. “But the law is the law no matter what [EEOC’s] the rules are there.”

While states and feds clash in court, Jackson said she’s focused on making sure as many women as possible know about their fresh rights.

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Whenever he is shopping and notices a pregnant store employee, he asks how she is feeling. He asks whether they know about their rights in the workplace and how to ask employers for the accommodations they need.

“Regardless of whether a mother chooses to have an abortion or not, she still needs medical care after the procedure, just as she would need in the event of a miscarriage or normal delivery,” Jackson said. “I think employers need to know the difference between personal [ideology] and business.”

state line is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Stateline maintains editorial independence. If you have any questions, please contact editor Scott S. Greenberger: [email protected]. Keep following Stateline Facebook AND Twitter.

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