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Your Rights Under the New Pregnant Workers’ Fairness Act

A sick, pregnant worker holds her head and her belly at her office desk.

During pregnancy and after childbirth, you have legal protection.

In a victory for employees’ rights, last month, the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (PWFA) went into effect. This new federal law provides workers with the right to reasonable accommodations during pregnancy and after childbirth. It’s intended to allow you to keep doing your job and earning a living to the greatest extent possible while starting or growing your family.

As this is a new law, it’s important to understand what your rights are and what your recourse may be if they are violated. Our West Virginia employment law attorneys are here to help you navigate your legal rights in the workplace during pregnancy and beyond.

Addressing a gap in existing federal protections for pregnant employees

Prior to the PWFA, pregnant workers had several protections under federal laws, but not necessarily the right to reasonable accommodations. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended by the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978, bans discrimination and harassment on the basis of pregnancy in hiring and employment, but does not necessarily require accommodations. The federal anti-discrimination laws only require employers to treat pregnant employees the same as everyone else, which in some workplaces may include strenuous tasks, lack of breaks, and so on.

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) provides unpaid leave for pregnant workers and new parents but does not address other types of accommodations that might allow an employee to keep working. And the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for a covered disability, but pregnancy itself is not considered a disability, although some complications and related medical conditions might be.

The PWFA thus fills in an important gap in federal employment laws by explicitly requiring employers to make reasonable accommodations for employees during pregnancy and after childbirth. Some examples of reasonable accommodations might include:

  • Allowing the pregnant worker to sit down when the job is normally done standing.
  • Providing additional break time for a pregnant employee to rest, eat a snack, or use the restroom.
  • Providing uniforms and other required gear in appropriate maternity sizes.
  • Excusing pregnant workers from physically strenuous tasks.
  • Providing flexible scheduling or time off for prenatal medical appointments.
  • Giving the pregnant worker a closer parking spot.

The law also prohibits employers from retaliating against a current or prospective employee for requesting accommodations. It prohibits employers from forcing an “accommodation” on a pregnant worker without consulting the worker first. And it specifically prohibits employers from requiring a pregnant employee to take leave if another reasonable accommodation can be found that allows them to keep working.

Under the law, employers can only refuse to offer accommodations if doing so would be an “undue hardship;” — a significant cost for the employer. It’s the employer’s responsibility to prove an undue hardship if they want to deny an accommodation on that basis. Keep in mind that because pregnancy is temporary, it’s harder for an employer to prove an undue hardship compared to a permanent accommodation — the cost to the employer to accommodate something for a maximum of nine months is much lower than making the same accommodation indefinitely.

What the new law means for West Virginia workers

It’s important for West Virginia workers to understand that while these protections are new at the federal level, many of them already existed under state law. The West Virginia Pregnant Workers’ Fairness Act, which was enacted in 2014, requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for pregnant employees that allow them to remain fully employed. The state-level version of the PWFA applies to all public employers and all private employers with at least 12 employees in the state, whereas the federal law applies to all employers with at least 15 employees.

As such, since almost every employer in West Virginia that is covered by the new federal law was already covered by the state law, this doesn’t change very much, at least in theory, for most workers in our state. However, having federal protections means you have additional options and recourse if your rights as a pregnant worker are violated. If your employer denied you a reasonable accommodation for pregnancy on or after June 27, 2023, then you might have a claim under both state and federal law, depending on the circumstances.

If you have been denied pregnancy accommodations, our law firm can help

Reasonable accommodations for pregnancy are a critical part of allowing women to remain in the workforce during some of their most vulnerable moments. If your rights under either state or federal law have been violated, we are prepared to stand up for you. Contact the pregnancy discrimination attorneys at Klie Law Offices for a free case evaluation. We proudly represent employees throughout West Virginia.

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