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Ayotte, Shaheen sponsor bill to protect pregnant workers

Last modified: 6/7/2015 1:56:15 AM
When Stephanie Ritchie Logan was pregnant with twins, her employer allowed her to squeeze her hours in around three appointments each week at Monadnock Community Hospital.

After she delivered her twins, the W.S. Badger Company, which makes organic body care products, agreed to let her work from home with the newborns.

“We’re well supported,” she said at a roundtable discussion Friday morning at the New Hampshire Women’s Foundation. “We have what we need. We know we can ask if there’s anything additional we need.”

But not every employer follows Badger’s model to provide accommodations for the needs of pregnant workers. That’s why U.S. Sens. Jeanne Shaheen and Kelly Ayotte have sponsored a bill to require employers to make reasonable adjustments for employees who have limitations due to pregnancy, childbirth or related medical conditions. Those accommodations could include allowing the woman to carry a water bottle, despite a policy against food or drinks on the job, or providing a stool for a pregnant employee who normally stands during work.

Shaheen, a Democrat, touted the benefits of that bill at yesterday’s roundtable.

“Women shouldn’t have to choose between their job and being pregnant,” Shaheen said.

A version of the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act has been introduced in Congress before, but this time, it has bipartisan support. Besides Shaheen, the legislation has three other sponsors: Democrat Sen. Bob Casey from Pennsylvania, Republican Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada – and Ayotte, a Republican.

“I think this is a really good bill to make sure that pregnant women can continue to work during their pregnancy,” Ayotte said in a phone interview.

Ayotte said she was six months pregnant when first appointed attorney general in New Hampshire.

“I worked throughout my pregnancy,” Ayotte recalled. “It makes sense that we update our laws.”

Both senators pointed to a recent Supreme Court case, in which a former UPS delivery driver was placed on unpaid leave because she couldn’t lift heavy objects while pregnant. The justices ruled in the woman’s favor, but the senators both said the decision did not definitively protect women’s rights to these accommodations.

“While it gave some relief to the plaintiff, it didn’t lay out a clear standard to apply to employers at all,” Ayotte said. “This is really something we should clarify.”

Employers are not allowed to be biased against pregnant workers under the 1978 Pregnancy Discrimination Act, and workers are afforded protected time off after child birth under the Family Medical Leave Act. But this bill would require a business to reasonably work around medical needs due to pregnancy, which isn’t always interpreted as part of existing law. Employers could be exempt if the accommodation poses an undue hardship, and should this bill become law, businesses with fewer than 15 employees would not be included under its umbrella.

At the roundtable discussion, Shaheen touted the legislation’s merits to advocates and working moms.

“It removes any gray area of what’s acceptable and what’s not,” Shaheen said.

Jennifer Frizzell, the senior policy advisor at Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, said refusing to accommodate a pregnant woman puts her well-being in danger. And if she is fired or placed on unpaid leave, her access to benefits might be threatened as well.

“They put at risk their access to health insurance through their employers, health insurance that is critical to their own maternity care,” Frizzell said.

Others spoke about their personal experiences during pregnancy. Ritchie Logan talked about the “lactation room” in her office. Another woman, Kate Frederick, cited her ongoing lawsuit against the state for pregnancy discrimination; she couldn’t elaborate without her lawyer present.

And Doug Folsom, the leader of GE Aviation’s Hooksett plant, said accommodating pregnant employees is “the right thing to do.”

“Our average service is almost 30 years. . . . We’re investing in employees’ lives,” Folsom said. “That involves pregnancy, that involves children, it involves at some point deaths in families. You have to accommodate all of those. So maybe there’s a period of some months of time where the person might be working in some different way, or being somewhat less productive for a small period of time. We’re investing in the long term.”

Terie Norelli, the president and CEO of the New Hampshire Women’s Foundation, said 14 other states and five cities – none in New Hampshire – have passed their own laws requiring some employers to make reasonable accommodations for pregnant women.

“Right now, it’s up to businesses who appreciate the economic benefits and the employee benefits of providing accommodations,” Norelli said. “It’s our hope that we can increase through education the willingness and desire of businesses, small and large, in New Hampshire to change their workplace policies.”

The conversation trended toward other benefits for families and women, including policies on family leave and bringing children to work. Sara Persechino, a selectwoman in Hopkinton and the development coordinator for the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, said her town was the first to offer six weeks of paid family leave to its employees. Nearby, her pigtailed toddler Kenley pushed toy cars across the conference room table.

The women – and man – at the table all agreed on a like-minded purpose.

“In order to support our future, we need to support our children,” Ritchie Logan said. “Which means we need to support our pregnant women. We need to support our families.”

At the other end of the conference room table from Shaheen, one-year-old Kenley reached for a cookie and smiled.

(Megan Doyle can be reached at 369-3321, mdoyle@cmonitor.com or on Twitter 


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