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Discrimination against pregnant women and new mothers remains a systemic issue in America’s workplaces. A recent article in the New York Times shed light on the widespread issue of pregnancy discrimination, featuring a story of a former employee, Otisha Woolbright, at one of the nation’s largest retailers.
During Otisha Woolbright’s pregnancy, she received news from an E.R. doctor that she was at risk of a miscarriage. While pregnant, she returned to her job, lifting 50-pound trays. Her doctor advised her to shift to lighter duties while pregnant, but her supervisor responded with a threat of termination. Woolbright’s job provided essential financial stability for her family, compelling her to continue the work. Unfortunately, the heavy lifting led to another trip to the E.R.
At seven months pregnant, Woolbright asked her supervisor about maternity leave, only to be informed that her services were no longer required. It took her a year to secure another job, and positions at a restaurant and van rental company didn’t provide the flexibility she needed to care for her children.
Woolbright’s story represents one example of the thousands of legal claims received by the EEOC annually, detailing employers’ discriminatory practices and refusal to provide accommodations to pregnant workers.
A turning point is the enactment of the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (PWFA). The new federal law is an achievement for Otisha Woolbright and the countless working women nationwide. The PWFA establishes a pivotal step toward a more equitable work environment, particularly during pregnancy.
What is the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act?
The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act is a new federal law mandating public or private companies with at least 15 employees to provide “reasonable accommodations” to qualified workers dealing with pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions. These accommodations are required unless they impose “undue hardship” on the employer (defined as causing significant difficulty or expense).
The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act effectively bridges the pre-existing gap between the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) of 1978 and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) for pregnant women and new mothers recovering from childbirth.
Passage of the PWFA represents a transformative advancement in equal rights, especially for the millions of pregnant and postpartum workers in the U.S. Not only will this legislation help ensure more equitable working conditions, but it will also allow birthing parents to overcome long-held barriers to full employment and the accompanying economic security it offers.
What reasonable accommodations do employers need to provide?
Although the EEOC won’t outline the “reasonable accommodations” mandated by the new law until the end of the year, we can anticipate some likely examples based on individual needs and job requirements.
The PWFA is expected to grant pregnant and postpartum employees accommodations such as:
- Priority parking
- Flexibility in work hours and schedules
- Enhanced seating with better support
- Appropriately sized uniforms and safety gear
- Access to restrooms and private rooms for nursing
- Additional meal, water, and rest breaks
- Relief from physically demanding tasks and exposure to harmful substances during pregnancy
The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) states that “employees who are temporarily unable to perform their jobs due to pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions must be treated the same for all employment-related purposes as other persons not so affected but similar in their ability or inability to work.”
How HR leaders can navigate the PWFA
With the new law’s enactment, HR leaders need to activate the team and necessary workflows—to get up to speed as quickly as possible.
Consider the following step-by-step plan as a guide for change management in your workplace.
Phase 1: Gather information
Information is key to being the best advocate for your employees. This involves assessing their needs, understanding and communicating their rights, and developing advocacy skills.
HR leaders can take these steps to create a workplace that truly supports pregnant women and new mothers, ensuring their employment and financial stability:
- Develop a thorough understanding of the requirements outlined in the new federal law.
- Consolidate support resources across the organization.
- Familiarize yourself with the existing company policies.
- Investigate industry best practices to support your case.
As HR leaders, it’s crucial to address these critical questions:
- How can this new law apply to your unique workforce?
- What may be outside the scope of this new law?
- Can other laws, such as the ADA 504 plan, apply?
Phase 2: Solicit and assess needs and concerns
HR leaders can schedule an initial meeting with employees shortly after completing the information-gathering tasks. This meeting aims to assess needs, understand concerns, and brainstorm together. Once the objective for the initial meeting is met, establish follow-up meetings to continually address evolving needs and concerns.
Here are some effective strategies to prepare:
- Evaluate existing practices, identifying strengths and areas for improvement.
- Use data and real-world examples to support your points, showcasing how suggested changes can enhance the workplace.
- Learn how to boost efficiencies within the organization.
- Refine work coverage and planning procedures before leaves of absence—and during accommodations.
Phase 3: Educate and inform employees
Employee education should be a leading priority for HR leaders. It’s advisable to schedule company meetings when HR and People leaders are fully prepared to share updates—and needs are known. During these interactions, leaders must acknowledge that these conversations will be ongoing and adjustments may be required to accommodate employees.
HR leaders’ responsibility is to ensure employees have all the information necessary to understand—and take action on—the following:
- Know their rights as defined under the PWFA federal law.
- Understand the newly available accommodations at their disposal.
- Evaluate their personal requirements for reasonable accommodations.
- Explore how their employer can reasonably meet their needs.
- Provide additional ideas or solutions to HR leaders.
What mental health support do pregnant workers need?
Presented here is a comprehensive guide addressing mental health challenges for pregnant women during different pregnancy stages. This guide serves to aid in the preparation and alignment of HR resources and support personnel.
Please note it’s critical to acknowledge that pregnancy and postpartum experiences are unique and individualized. HR leaders must carefully consider each individual’s unique requirements in the workplace.
Early pregnancy (first trimester):
- Anxiety and uncertainty: Women may experience higher anxiety about the pregnancy’s viability and potential complications.
- Nausea and physical discomfort: Symptoms like morning sickness can impact mental well-being, as physical discomfort intertwines with emotional experiences.
Mid-pregnancy (second trimester):
- Emotional adjustment: As the pregnancy becomes more apparent, women may need support adjusting to the emotional changes.
- Physical or medical considerations: Conditions like gestational diabetes or high blood pressure can impact a pregnant woman’s physical well-being, and lead to a journey marked by fluctuations and subsequent recovery.
- Anxiety over test results: Results from genetic tests, bloodwork, or imaging scans can evoke heightened anxiety and stress.
- High-risk pregnancy: Employees facing a high-risk pregnancy may have extra doctor visits or need additional accommodations due to potential complications.
Late pregnancy (third trimester):
- Anticipation and childbirth anxiety: As the due date approaches, apprehension about labor can lead to heightened anxiety. Many may need to participate in additional preparatory classes.
- Physical discomfort: Increased physical discomfort can impact mental health and well-being. Sleep disruptions can be an escalating issue, warranting flexible work scheduling.
- Baby blues and postpartum depression: Many women experience significant mood fluctuations after childbirth. Some may develop postpartum depression or anxiety, requiring professional mental health support.
- Sleep deprivation: Insufficient sleep can exacerbate mental health issues postpartum.
- Transition to motherhood: Support may be required as women adapt to their new roles as mothers and navigate the accompanying challenges.
- Body image and self-esteem: Changes in body image following childbirth can influence self-esteem.
Perinatal Loss (Miscarriage or Stillbirth):
- Grief and loss: Experiencing a miscarriage or stillbirth can lead to intense grief and emotional distress. Women need empathetic and compassionate support during this difficult time.
What does the PWFA mean for your workplace?
Nurturing employees during pregnancy and postpartum is a vital aspect of fostering their physical and emotional well-being while also cultivating a more positive and healthy work environment.
Let’s delve into the advantages that come from providing dedicated support to pregnant and postpartum workers, benefiting the organization as a whole:
- Encourages gender equality: By ensuring women can pursue their careers without undue obstacles related to family planning, your workplace takes a significant stride toward promoting gender equality.
- Enhances job satisfaction: Offering support enhances a sense of value and commitment among women, leading to higher retention rates and increased loyalty to the company.
- Attracts top talent: A workplace recognized for its supportive policies toward pregnant and postpartum employees stands out as family-friendly and inclusive, appealing to high-caliber talent. This can minimize turnover rates, saving the organization time and resources for hiring and training new employees.
- Boosts productivity and success: When women receive the necessary support and accommodations during and after pregnancy, they’re more likely to remain productive, engaged, and successful.
How to enhance mental health advocacy for your workforce
Direct access to a trained mental health therapist or coach—available through an Employee Assistance Program (EAP)—can help HR and People leaders strengthen their organization’s advocacy, communication, empathy, and other applicable skills. These can include active listening, assertiveness, and articulating your thoughts and ideas.
Furthermore, mental health therapists are a valuable addition during organizational change management. They can facilitate the creation of new support programs tailored for HR leaders. A well-established roadmap, guided by therapists or coaches, offers advantages for both People leaders and employees, including:
- Elevating employee self-confidence: Such a program nurtures a sense of self-assurance, enabling transparent and candid expressions of opinions.
- Discerning employee goals and needs: A deeper understanding of your employee’s personal needs, goals for professional growth, and desired outcomes will help build trust. This proves invaluable when finding amicable compromises on women’s rights to reasonable accommodations.
- Emotional regulation: Advocacy can evoke intense emotions like frustration, anger, or anxiety. EAP therapists help employees and HR leaders manage these emotions during the advocacy journey.
- Conflict resolution expertise: Equipping HR leaders with conflict resolution strategies empowers them to navigate complex situations and sustain productive dialogues.
- Setting healthy boundaries: Establishing boundaries is a pivotal aspect of advocacy. Therapists provide guidance for defining these boundaries, facilitating challenging conversations for HR and People leaders.
- Fostering empathy: Therapists assist HR leaders with developing empathy and appreciating diverse perspectives, which is essential for building compelling arguments and meaningful connections.
Adapting to the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act
Around 75% of women entering today’s workforce will experience pregnancy during their employment tenure. In an evolving trend, more women are choosing to continue working through their final trimester.
According to the EEOC, eight in ten women who are pregnant with their first child remain employed until the last month of pregnancy. Notably, nearly a quarter of mothers have considered leaving their jobs during pregnancy due to a lack of accommodations or fear of discrimination.
The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (PWFA) will transform the workplace for approximately 2.8 million women, as highlighted in a report by the advocacy organization National Partnership for Women and Families. This legislation will empower women to confidently seek the support they require without fearing retribution due to their need for reasonable accommodations.
While the full extent of the new policy’s impact remains uncertain—until the EEOC provides further insights into the definition of “reasonable accommodations” under the law—brace yourself for a shift in workplace culture and policies. Being prepared to navigate change is essential to ensuring a smooth transition and fostering a supportive environment for all employees.
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