By Amber Mack
The federal Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (H.R. 1065) passed the U.S. House on May 14 by a vote of 315-101. This is an important measure that Georgia’s pregnant and postpartum employees need to thrive in safe working environments.
To date, 30 U.S. states have instituted legislation to ensure working women are protected from discrimination while they are pregnant or after they have recently given birth. The seven states in our region that have passed such legislation are Tennessee, Virginia, Kentucky, Louisiana, North Carolina, South Carolina and Texas.
Unfortunately, Georgia is one of the 20 remaining states without a policy that guarantees reasonable accommodations for pregnancy and childbirth, meaning pregnant workers who simply need a stool to sit on, drinking water to stay hydrated, or temporary relief from heavy lifting are vulnerable to termination. The Coalition for Georgia’s Pregnant Workers (CGPW) is working to ensure that this is no longer the case.
Reasonable, low-cost accommodations such as adequate water, food breaks, and access to a seat during the workday help women stay on the job and support healthy pregnancies. The Kentucky Department of Public Health and Wellness addressed pregnant workers’ health concerns in its 2019 Pregnant Workers Health Impact Assessment. The report concluded that reasonable accommodations could allow pregnant workers to stay on the job and reduce negative health outcomes for mother and baby.
It is also important for employers to provide lactation policies to support families as new mothers return to work, to improve Georgia’s breastfeeding duration rates. Only 22 percent of Georgia’s new mothers are meeting the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recommendation of exclusively breastfeeding for six months.
Breastfeeding has been associated with several health benefits to a growing baby, including reduced risks of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), respiratory infections, diabetes and obesity. In 2020, the Georgia General Assembly passed HB 1090, which would require employers to provide reasonable break time to an employee who needs breast milk for a nursing child. However, no enforcement mechanisms were included in the law, so employees have no recourse available if employers do not follow the law.
Workplace accommodations are business-friendly measures. They help businesses by increasing employee retention and morale as well as reducing turnover. Women may be more inclined to stay in a job they know is supportive of their pregnancy and postpartum needs. This reduces turnover, thus saving employers hiring and training costs.
Additionally, establishing protections for pregnant and postpartum employees helps employers avoid costly litigation by providing explicit standards related to discrimination. Clear guidelines will allow employers to better understand what accommodations they must provide to these workers, and what workplace policies might be considered discriminatory. This helps resolve legal problems before they arise by facilitating informal resolution of workers’ complaints.
Our lawmakers at both the state and federal levels now have an opportunity to ensure that no pregnant worker has to make the impossible choice between protecting her health and paying her bills. In next year’s session of the Georgia General Assembly, members should advance HB 650, the Georgia Working for Two Act. Also, all members of Georgia’s congressional delegation should vote yes on H.R. 1065, the federal Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, which is now headed to the Senate for action. These critical workplace protections for pregnant and postpartum workers are long overdue.
Amber Mack is the research & policy analyst at Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies Coalition of Georgia. Amber coordinates multi-sector working groups to address a range of maternal and infant health needs including oral health, doula services, infant mortality, and access to care. She also manages research projects, including the State of the State Report and Georgia COVID Perinatal Experiences (COPE) Study, and evaluates the impact of HMHBGA programs. Engaging with legislators and advocates, she provides technical data support for policies that will improve maternal and infant health across the state of Georgia.