New rules aim to keep moms-to-be in the workforce

Working parents researcher Laura Little unpacks this summer’s Pregnant Workers Fairness Act
A woman in a blazer places her hand on her pregnant belly while working on her laptop

About 1 in 5 moms say they experienced discrimination at work while pregnant, and almost 1 in 4 considered leaving their jobs due to their pregnancies.

In July of this year, the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act enacted new protections for pregnant workers in offices, hospitals, classrooms or the factory floor. The new rules aim to keep more women in the workforce during pregnancy. Laura Little, the Chick-fil-A Distinguished Professor for Leadership Advancement, studies parenthood and the workplace, answers questions about how the new rules could impact the workplace and how they might change the experience of working moms.

  1. I thought pregnant workers were protected against rules against gender and sex discrimination. What has changed?

The new law represents a significant step forward in protecting the rights and well-being of pregnant workers. It expands the scope of accommodations for pregnancy-related medical conditions, covering a wide range of needs from pregnancy through childbirth to postpartum recovery. These accommodations now include crucial areas of fertility treatments, morning sickness, lactation complications, gestational diabetes, pregnancy loss, and postpartum depression.

While the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) of 1978 did explicitly prohibit discrimination based on pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions, it required pregnant workers to demonstrate their eligibility for accommodations. In practice, this meant many pregnant employees had to navigate a complex process to access the needed accommodations. The new law streamlines this process, offering more comprehensive protections and extending access to unpaid leave for pregnant workers who previously did not qualify for federal leave.

Importantly, the new act removes the requirement for a worker to have a pregnancy-related disability to be eligible for accommodations. Instead, it simply requires an individual to be pregnant and request accommodation, making it easier for pregnant workers to receive the support they need to maintain their health and continue working without undue hardship.

  1. What does pregnancy discrimination look like?  

Pregnancy discrimination takes many forms. Some more insidious examples are refusal to hire, termination, failure to promote, demotion and other types of unequal treatment based on their pregnancy. Pregnant workers may also be denied leave for the accommodation they need.

  1. What does a reasonable accommodation mean? What would that look like in today’s office environment?

The House Committee on Education and Labor Report pertaining to the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (PWFA) outlines various examples of reasonable accommodations that employers should consider for pregnant workers.

These accommodations encompass a range of needs, such as granting the option to sit or access drinking water, providing closer parking facilities, offering flexible work hours to accommodate pregnancy-related requirements, ensuring uniforms and safety gear are of suitable sizes, allowing additional break time for essential activities like restroom use, meals, and rest, permitting leave or time off for post-childbirth recovery and excusing pregnant employees from strenuous tasks or activities that involve exposure to unsafe compounds during pregnancy.

Importantly, employers are generally obligated to provide these accommodations unless they can demonstrate that doing so would impose an “undue hardship” on their operations. An “undue hardship” is defined as a significant difficulty or expense for the employer, serving as a threshold for the determination of reasonable accommodations.

  1. How will these new protections change work life for pregnant workers? What are the benefits of employers helping pregnant workers stay in their jobs?

Hopefully, the new protections will protect pregnant workers while removing some of the burden. Supporting pregnant workers can provide many benefits to employers and employees. Retaining skilled workers is a benefit to any organization, reducing turnover costs and preserving institutional knowledge. Many workers look for organizations that have attractive maternity benefits, and therefore, supportive policies can attract top talent and create a positive working environment. Moreover, ensuring pregnant workers are receiving the support they need increases the chances of a healthy pregnancy and baby.

Supporting pregnant workers and new mothers can have far-reaching benefits. In a 2023 study, we found that when new mothers felt supported at the organization, their stress declined positively impacting their partner’s stress level as well. These decreases in stress spilled over into the workplace, improving interpersonal and career outcomes for both parents.

In another 2023 research paper, where we delve into the topic of postpartum depression, my fellow researchers and I underscore the numerous obstacles that exist when trying to balance motherhood with reentering the workforce. To compound this, it’s crucial to note that one in seven women will also grapple with postpartum depression.

Our investigation reveals that this situation gives rise to what we term an “imposing identity,” fundamentally reshaping how women view the intersection of their professional and family lives. This can be especially daunting for women who lack the necessary support both in their workplace and home environments to effectively manage their symptoms.

This law will hopefully help in prioritizing a mother’s successful transition back into the workforce and addressing her mental well-being as well as create a clear path for organizations to provide support and retain their female employees.

But I can’t stress enough that in addition to these legislative changes, it is of utmost importance that we educate supervisors and colleagues about the challenges linked to motherhood. Raising awareness can boost mothers’ confidence in seeking assistance and ensure that resources are accessible to women to tackle issues associated with pregnancy and childbirth.

  1. When looking for new jobs, should women look for in a company? What are the characteristics of companies that will support their workers who are parents so they can thrive both at the office and in their home lives?

All employees should look for a supportive organization that supports their whole selves — including family responsibilities. Compassion and reasonable accommodations should be part of the culture for all individuals — whether that’s because one is pregnant, just had a baby, or is dealing with some other major family transition.