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Editorial: State making positive moves toward protecting pregnant workers

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Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Most people show great respect for pregnant women, no less here in Massachusetts, a liberal state that pioneered state-supported universal health care, legalized gay marriage and traditionally has offered an array of social safety-net programs.

So why isn’t Massachusetts among the 18 states that protect pregnant employees in the workplace? While most employers already do the right thing by their pregnant workers, some have been reluctant to see new laws enacted that establish rigid rules for the workplace.

That was the case in the last legislative session when a Pregnant Workers Fairness Act failed. Former state representative Ellen Story of Amherst, who retired in January, was the House sponsor of that bill. “If a pregnant woman is in a work situation where her superior is mean to her, she should have recourse if talking to people in human resources doesn’t help,” Story explained last summer.

Back then, Associated Industries of Massachusetts — an organization that represents thousands of employers — said the bill did not include enough flexibility for businesses, even those that made what they considered to be multiple reasonable efforts to accommodate workers.

We were gratified to hear this month that the bill is back — and on track to pass — with support from Associated Industries of Massachusetts. The bill received a major boost earlier this year when MotherWoman, a Hadley-based advocacy group for working mothers, negotiated compromise language with the employers’ organization.

House Bill 1038 would require employers to offer reasonable accommodations for pregnant or nursing workers.

House Speaker Robert DeLeo has described the bill as providing “commonsense accommodations like nursing needs and food, water and restroom breaks,” and his support is a hopeful sign.

The bill envisions businesses collaborating with their employees to determine effective and reasonable accommodations.

Those accommodations could include modified work schedules or temporary transfers to less strenuous positions, or simpler things such as a stool to sit on or more frequent bathroom breaks.

Labor law experts told a joint legislative committee recently that the bill was needed because most normal pregnancies do not rise to the definition of a disability under state law, so pregnant workers are generally not entitled to the same protections as legally disabled workers.

This all seems like common sense, especially as our modern economy practically requires that mothers continue to work during pregnancy and return to the workplace soon after childbirth. But the world of work is a complicated place where common sense doesn’t always prevail.

Witnesses at the hearing told anecdotes about women put at risk of losing their jobs because of the temporary accommodation they sought at work. Linda O’Connell, acting executive director of MotherWoman, spoke of a waitress forced to work 12-hour shifts and a nanny who was fired by her employer after being told she was “too pregnant” to care for children.

“In Massachusetts, a woman may be forced to choose between their job and a healthy pregnancy or the choice may be made for them,” O’Connell said. The new law promises to provide more protection by requiring reasonable accommodation during pregnancy.

At the same time, the compromise recognizes there should be reasonable limits to those accommodations and includes more business-friendly language that would exempt employers who can demonstrate that compliance would create “undue hardship” for their businesses, defined as a significant difficulty or expense.

The bill would also require that nursing mothers be given time and a private space to pump breast milk.

Workers who feel their employers have failed to meet the law’s requirements could go to court or complain to the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, which supports the legislation.

We’re encouraged to see that this long-overdue protection has 167 co-sponsors in the House and Senate, and we urge the Legislature to pass this bill quickly.