Steward’s Corner: New Law Protects Pregnant and Nursing Workers
Judy approached Chief Steward Amy over lunch one day with big news: she was three months pregnant! Amy congratulated her.
Then Judy said, “Amy, I’m a little worried about telling our boss. My doctor said there’s a new law that gives me permission to carry a water bottle at work and ask for extra bathroom breaks, but I know Bob doesn’t like to give any extra breaks. Do you know anything about this law? Can the union help me?”
On the other side of the country, Eliana, a department steward, dropped off a meal for her colleague Tisha, who was at home with her eight-week-old newborn. As they chatted on the porch, Eliana asked Tisha if she still planned to come back to work in a few weeks.
“Yes,” Tisha said, “I’m going a little stir-crazy and looking forward to coming back. There’s just one thing I’m worried about.”
“What’s that?” Eliana asked.
“I’ve been breastfeeding the baby, and it’s going really well,” Tisha said. “I've even started pumping some breastmilk for when I go back to work. But I don’t think just pumping once a day on my lunch break is going to work for me. Do you know if I can get extra breaks to pump?”
“Yeah, you can,” Eliana said excitedly. “There’s a new law that passed that says the boss has to give you breaks, and a clean space to pump that’s not a bathroom!”
“Wow, what a relief,” Tisha said. “I’m so glad you brought chili and good news!”
Union stewards and leaders should know crucial information about two new federal laws: the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (PWFA) and the PUMP Act. These laws, which both went into effect in the last year, focus on workplace accommodations for pregnant, postpartum and nursing workers, guaranteeing their rights to a safe and supportive work environment.
The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act ensures that pregnant workers receive reasonable accommodations to enable them to keep working during pregnancy or related medical conditions that may arise. It also prevents discrimination against pregnant workers. The law applies to both public and private employers with at least 15 employees.
Pregnant workers can request accommodations such as sitting, flexible hours, additional breaks, or modified duties. They can request a change in uniform, such as being able to wear maternity pants. They can request not to be exposed to certain chemicals, or, as Judy asked, to be allowed to carry a water bottle.
The law also applies when the worker is ready to return to the job, requiring reasonable accommodations for medical conditions that arose from being pregnant or giving birth. This might include extended lift restrictions for someone recovering from a C-section, or a modified schedule that allows for a weekly therapy appointment to treat postpartum depression.
Employers are required to provide reasonable accommodations unless they would cause an “undue hardship” to the employer’s operations. An “undue hardship” is significant difficulty or expense for the employer.
Importantly, the law states that employers cannot discriminate or retaliate against pregnant workers for requesting accommodations. Workers cannot be punished by being denied job opportunities or being forced to take leave if an alternative accommodation allows them to continue working.
The PWFA is enforced by the federal Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC). If an employer fails to comply with the new law, a steward might want to remind the boss of this outside enforcement mechanism. The EEOC is drafting additional regulations that will provide further clarification.
If you work for an employer in a state or city with rules that provide more protections for pregnant workers, those better laws will still apply. But the PWFA sets a base level of protection for U.S. workplaces that didn’t have protections.
In order to receive accommodations, the pregnant or recently pregnant worker does have to notify their boss that they are requesting a temporary accommodation related to a physical or mental condition due to their pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical condition.
Stewards can help workers write a letter to the boss documenting the requested accommodation, or go with the worker to a meeting with management about their request.
A Better Balance has sample letters to employers and examples of accommodations, in English and Spanish.
The Providing Urgent Maternal Protections for Nursing Mothers Act (or PUMP Act) is a federal law that expands the right to time and space at work to pump breast milk. This legislation covers almost all workplaces, regardless of how many workers they employ. (Unfortunately a few workers are excluded from the law, including airline flight crewmembers and certain rail carrier and motor coach workers.)
Employers must provide reasonable break time for nursing workers to express breast milk for up to one year after the child’s birth. Additionally, employers must provide a private space that is not a bathroom, shielded from view and intrusion.
If the employer provides paid breaks, pumping workers should be compensated for pumping breaks in the same way as other employees are compensated for their regular breaks. But if employees are not relieved from duty while pumping, such as being required to answer phone calls or email, the time used to pump breast milk must be paid.
For example, if you are salaried and have the ability to take breaks whenever you want, the law applies to you too: an employer cannot reduce your salary to account for pumping breaks. Or if you work an hourly job in a state that has requirements to provide periodic paid breaks for all hourly workers, you are allowed to use those paid breaks as part of your pumping time.
A worker and their steward may need to advocate with the employer to help them understand what an adequate pumping space includes: the ability to lock the door and cover windows for privacy, and an electrical outlet for plugging in the pump.
The PUMP Act is enforced by the Wage and Hour Division (WHD) of the Department of Labor. If the boss won’t comply with their responsibilities, or if they try to retaliate against a worker for asking for pumping accommodations, workers can file complaints with WHD, and they also have the right to file a lawsuit. Stewards should remind management of this if any problems arise.