May 26, 2017

New law supports women with healthy pregnancies

Good Beginnings of Central Vermont worker Katie O'Rourke, left, works with a young East Montpelier mom and her baby. A new law provides workplace accommodations to mothers with healthy pregnancies.
STEFAN HARD / STAFF FILE PHOTO

Good Beginnings of Central Vermont worker Katie O'Rourke, left, works with a young East Montpelier mom and her baby. A new law provides workplace accommodations to mothers with healthy pregnancies. STEFAN HARD / STAFF FILE PHOTO

On Friday, May 4, Gov. Phil Scott signed bill H.136 into law. Known as Act 21, the legislation provides the same accommodations to working pregnant women that are available to people with disabilities as specified in the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“This is an economic equity issue. Women are already in a more financially precarious situation than men in the state of Vermont and this law allows for simple solutions for women to maintain their positions within the workplace during and after their pregnancy,” said Cary Brown, executive director at the Vermont Commission on Women.

Act 21 provides an easier process for pregnant workers to receive reasonable accommodations in the workplace, and requires employers to reasonably accommodate a worker’s condition related to pregnancy or childbirth, unless the employer can prove that doing so would pose “undue hardship.”

Under disability laws, employers must accommodate pregnant women’s needs in the workplace during a healthy, uncomplicated pregnancy, allowing them to stay healthy and prevent problems before they could possibly occur.

Prior to the bill, courts have held the ADA excluded employees experiencing an uncomplicated pregnancy. The ADA included and protected employees who had pregnancy-related medical conditions, such as preeclampsia, gestational diabetes or pregnancy-related carpal tunnel. Now the ADA protects all pregnant employees.

“When a pregnancy is relatively typical, uncomplicated, it’s difficult for employees to be granted simple requests such as more frequent bathroom breaks or to carry a water bottle,” said Vicki Shabo, vice president at the National Partnership for Women & Families, located in Washington, D.C. “The bill simply states that pregnant workers can now put in a request for reasonable, temporary accommodations.”

Employers will not be allowed to force pregnant employees to go on leave of absence due to their condition, and they can no longer take adverse action against an employee due to a request or use of accommodations during pregnancy.

“During the hearing we heard from several citizens who have experienced problems within their place of work,” said Vermont state Rep. Helen Head, D-South Burlington. “One concern expressed was from a cashier who had been denied the opportunity to sit and have a water bottle — it increased her tiredness.”

Employers must post notice of these rights in a conspicuous location on the premises. The law applies to employers that have one or more employees in the state, according to the National Partnership for Women & Families.

“Three-quarters of women entering the workforce will be pregnant and employed at some point in their lives. The majority of pregnant women in Vermont are employed during their pregnancies, and the majority of those pregnancies are healthy and uncomplicated,” Brown said. “We already have laws protecting pregnant women within the workforce, yet we didn’t have one to protect and accommodate healthy pregnancies for reasonable, minor accommodations — simple additions that will help women who are trying to stay at their jobs throughout their pregnancy.”

Accommodations include providing a pregnant woman with a stool or chair so she can sit while she works; extra water at or near her area of work; allowing longer and or more frequent rest room breaks; avoidance of heavy lifting; and allowing the pregnant woman to either not wear her uniform that no longer fits, or making a provision for a new uniform as pregnancy advances. Most of these pregnancy accommodations are low- to no-cost temporary adjustments for employers.

The bill states that employees should have the conversation with their employer for the necessary provisions fit for their needs after they have a received a doctor’s professional recommendation.

“We heard several stories from Rep. Dr. George Till (D-Jericho, an obstetrician and gynecologist affiliated with University of Vermont Medical Center),” Head said. “We heard more from him than indirect constituents related to pregnancy accommodations. The amount of concern expressed was more than in regards to the Paid Family and Medical Leave Bill — this was persuasive to the committee.”

Vermont has joined 19 states, the District of Columbia, and four cities which have passed laws requiring some employers to provide reasonable accommodations to pregnant workers, Shabo said.

When pregnant women are denied accommodations or don’t ask for them out of fear, they may be forced to choose between their paycheck and a healthy pregnancy, according to www.women.vermont.gov.

Act 21 will take effect Jan. 1, 2018.

 

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