Today in rights you probably didn’t realize that you didn’t have before: Pregnant workers now have a federal, legal right to take bathroom breaks among other very basic protections, as the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (PWFA) takes effect on Tuesday. The legislation passed Congress in December after much pushback from Republican senators, who characterized it as a backdoor pathway to “abortions on demand” even though it doesn’t mention abortion.
As the 19th notes, the passage of PWFA was roughly a decade in the making, after activists pointed out existing law required pregnant employees to prove they should be accommodated. The federal law now puts the burden on employers to work in good faith to provide accommodations to pregnant employees.
In addition to requiring employers to allow pregnant workers additional time to rest, use the restroom, sit, or wear maternity clothing, the law creates a requirement for employers to support workers through the full range of pregnancy-related conditions, from pregnancy to childbirth to postpartum recovery.
“As the husband of a wife who had two children while she was working and the grandfather of two grandchildren with a daughter who’s a nurse, I absolutely want to make sure those sort of reasonable accommodations are accounted for,” Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) said in December, before explaining why he actually didn’t support reasonable accommodations at all: “In its current form, this legislation before us would give federal bureaucrats at the EEOC [Equal Employment Opportunity Commission] authority to mandate that employers nationwide provide accommodations such as leave to obtain abortions on demand, under the guise of pregnancy-related conditions.”
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) offered similar misgivings about the bill at the time, with a spokesperson claiming it “could force religious employers to provide accommodations that arise from an abortion, which could violate the free exercise of their religious beliefs.”
Let me just say that I, personally, would love nothing more than federal legislation to offer paid leave and accommodations to people who have abortions—like in Portland, Oregon, which became the first city in the nation to offer paid leave for abortion and pregnancy loss in 2021. Alas, that is not what the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act does, but I tip my hat to the first congress member with the courage to do what needs to be done.