This law saves the lives of pregnant workers, even though an abortion dispute makes it harder to police

Vicki Cornejo Barrera believed the worker legal service was a fake because it seemed too good to be true.

A month ago, Cornejo Barrera had to take time off from her job as head janitor at a high school in South Carolina because she was pregnant and needed a note from her doctor saying she couldn’t do things like climb ladders or lift more than 20 pounds.

She cried and blamed herself for a month because she thought she could keep her job while she was pregnant. Because she couldn’t afford to go without a paycheck, she used up all of her paid time off. Then she got a letter from HR telling her that while she was on unpaid leave, she would have to start paying $600 a month to keep her health insurance.

“I felt so bad about what I did.” And Cornejo Barrera said, “I felt like my pregnancy was the problem.”

While looking for assistance online, she stumbled into the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act website, which is operated by the legal advocacy group A Better Balance. It provided information about a federal legislation that allowed her to get the kinds of accommodations she had been asking for. It had taken effect in June 2023, one month before to her termination from the company.

Did the law truly favor her? Cornejo Barrera made a hotline call.

A new law’s difficult initial year

In the year since the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act went into effect, around 500 employees in comparable situations have gotten in touch with A Better Balance’s legal helpline, which supports employees’ rights to request accommodations for pregnancy-related requirements. A Better Balance, the organization that led a decade-long campaign for the law that Congress finally passed in December 2022, released a report on Tuesday that explained how the experiences of those workers tell a complex story about the impact of a new law that is still foreign to many employers.

Most of those employees—who were primarily low-wage women—acquired housing quickly after becoming aware of their legal rights and bringing them up with their employers, according to Dina Bakst, co-founder and co-president of A Better Balance. However, the research states that many women continued to confront employers who were either ignorant of the law, misconstrued its meaning, or outright refused to comply.

Raising awareness is a significant task, according to Charlotte Burrows, head of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which administers the legislation and engages with labor organizations and employers.

Burrows remarked, “I don’t think we’re where we need to be yet.” “We will make every effort to ensure that the information gap is closed for everyone.”

However, a contentious legal dispute over whether the statute permits abortion is making it more difficult to enforce.

The EEOC regulations, which went into effect on Tuesday and specify how companies must abide by the law, are at the heart of the controversy. Among the pregnancy-related ailments that qualify employees for time off and other accommodations is abortion.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and three other religious organizations filed a consolidated lawsuit against the EEOC, claiming that the abortion provision is an illegal interpretation of the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act. On Tuesday, a federal judge in Louisiana temporarily barred the EEOC from enforcing the abortion provision of its rules against employers located in Louisiana and Mississippi.

A comparable lawsuit brought by Republican attorneys general from 17 states was dismissed by an Arkansas judge last week, but the case’s lead attorney, Tim Griffin, stated he is exploring his legal options to press the challenge.

In their amicus papers, the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Women’s Law Center, and more than 20 labor and women’s advocacy organizations warned that the possibility of the judge suspending the EEOC guidelines in their entirety could prevent the law from being successfully implemented.

For instance, the EEOC’s regulations clearly state that employers cannot stall petitions by requiring burdensome documentation from expectant employees to support claims of typical pregnancy-related limitations like back discomfort or morning sickness. Additionally, they are not allowed to make pregnant employees take leave when appropriate accommodations are offered.

The regulations specify the strict requirements that businesses must fulfill in order to demonstrate that providing accommodations would put their company under “undue hardship.”

Advocates claim that the pregnant workers statute is an essential tool for resolving conflicts and educating companies on compliance, even if it would still be in effect in the absence of EEOC regulations. Seven employees who have called A Better Balance’s helpline since the law went into effect report that their bosses have told them to take leave instead of making reasonable accommodations.

Cornejo Barrera was one of them, but after she filed a letter to her human resources department asserting her rights, her company changed their mind. After two days, she gave her supervisor some language from the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, and he informed her she could go back to work right away.

Upon her return, she noticed that the high school had posted signs alerting staff members to the law.

Working until the day before her daughter was born on February 2, Cornejo Barerra remarked, “Realizing that I was right, I wasn’t wrong, it was so satisfying.”

In the end, Raquel Robinson—an Ohio telecommunications specialist who has worked for her employer for 23 years—also prevailed in a similar conflict.

Robinson received a postpartum depression diagnosis in October 2022, following the birth of her daughter. She found it difficult to get dressed and leave her house. “I simply wasn’t in a good enough mental place to feel like I could be my daughter’s mother,” the mother stated. “I was unable to stop her from crying.”

Her therapist advised her to work from home to help with the adjustment after her disability leave expired in July 2023, and informed her that she was legally entitled to such an accommodation under the new law. However, her request was denied by her employer for over a month. She discovered, after one agonizing meeting, that the corporation had disclosed her personal details to her male manager, including her issues with hygiene, but they had insisted that nothing she had said prevented her from performing her duties at work.

She remarked, “I’m literally crying thinking about it.” “I feel so ashamed.”

Robinson asked A Better Balance for assistance, and the business gave in. After working from home for several months, she is getting ready to return to the office this week.

There are still workers who are battling for legal protections.

A Better Balance brought accusations against the EEOC earlier this month on behalf of two women who claimed to have violated the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act. One worker at an Indiana Chick-fil-A franchise said she lost points due to a punitive attendance policy after requesting time off to recuperate after an almost miscarriage that led her to the ER. Another concerns an Amtrak engineer who claims that after giving birth, the railroad recorded her first few days off as unaccounted for, potentially leading to her termination, and then declined to allow her to continue pumping milk when she resumed work.

Amtrak would not comment on ongoing legal matters. Questions were forwarded to Chick-fil-A staff; Jeff Hoffman, the company’s owner, declined to comment.

Although it hasn’t disclosed specifics about the cases, the EEOC claims to have received 1,869 allegations so far alleging Pregnant Workers Fairness Act violations and to have handled over 450 of them.

The abortion debate makes the law more complex

After years of advocacy work by advocacy groups and low-wage workers sharing their experiences of being refused even the most basic accommodations, the law was finally passed in 2022. Their stories contributed to the demonstration that the 1978 Pregnancy Discrimination Act provided nothing to ensure workplace accommodations, even though it forbade employers from terminating women for no other reason than that they were pregnant.

However, when the EEOC guidelines specifically mentioned abortion, Republican lawmakers and conservative religious leaders—who had overwhelmingly supported the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act—became enraged. On the five-member EEOC, the two Republican commissioners cast votes against the regulation.

The EEOC claimed in its regulations that it was adhering to decades of legal precedent establishing that pregnancy-related discrimination prohibitions cover abortion, citing multiple court opinions.

Mylissa Farmer, the woman at the center of a federal inquiry into two hospitals for refusing to perform her an emergency abortion, stated that her experience demonstrates the need for abortion rights to be included in the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act.

When the farmer’s water broke early in August 2022, she was 17 weeks pregnant and sought emergency care. Physicians in Missouri and Kansas refused to perform an abortion on Farmer despite telling her that her fetus would not survive, that her amniotic fluid had emptied, and that she was in danger of developing a fatal infection or losing her uterus.

She went into labor and spent hours traveling with her husband before receiving an abortion at an Illinois clinic.

Farmer, a low-wage sales representative, claimed that throughout her ordeal, her boss got in touch with her constantly to put pressure on her to go back to work. She claimed that although her doctor had advised her to take two weeks off to recuperate, she went back to work two days later out of fear of losing her job. However, she was disciplined despite taking time off to deal with the emotional and physical pain of losing her pregnancy, even to the point that she occasionally broke down when traveling to see clients.

Farmer, whose complaint to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services is being handled by the National Women’s Law Center, said, “I was just not able to get the care that I needed at the time and it made it really difficult to even deal with the emotional loss of what we were going through.”

In an attempt to start again, she and her spouse quit their employment and moved to Oregon with her sister. However, things didn’t work out, and they were briefly homeless.

Since then, the pair has started over with new careers, but because of the criticism she has gotten, they are now living in an undisclosed place.

Farmer remarked, “I don’t think a lot of people realize you are very easily replaced in these types of situations at these lower paying job levels.”


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