Why women still struggle to manage careers and families has been a hot topic for a few years now. It’s an important conversation, one that has helped us define the problem and even stumble upon a few solutions, but sometimes it feels like there has been whole lot a talk with little emphasis on action.
Meanwhile, groups like a Better Balance, an organization dedicated to advancing the rights of working families, have been getting their hands dirty changing the laws and workplace structures that are standing in working parents’ ways.
The Sisterhood recently spoke with Dina Bakst, co-President of a Better Balance, about their recent legal victory protecting pregnant workers in New York City, their plans to expand these protections to women across the country and what all pregnant working women should know about their rights.
THE SISTERHOOD: On October 2nd the New York City Pregnant Workers Fairness Act was signed into law. Can you tell us a little bit about what it will do?
DINA BAKST: The New York City Pregnant Workers Fairness Act makes it unmistakably clear that employers cannot push a woman out of her job just because she needs a modest adjustment to maintain a healthy pregnancy and stay on the job. The law ensures fair treatment for pregnant workers, because no woman should have to choose between her paycheck and her health. Specifically, it requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations for pregnant workers and new mothers, although employers do not have to provide an accommodation if it would cause an undue hardship on their business.
How did a Better Balance help make this happen? Our Op-Ed in the New York Times last year inspired Councilmember James Vacca to commit to introducing legislation to strengthen pregnancy discrimination protections in the workplace. A Better Balance worked with him and other legislators and partners in drafting the legislation. We also organized a coalition of supporters and gathered supporting materials, such as letters of support.
I hear there is now a similar law in Philadelphia? On the heels of the victory in New York City, a Philadelphia councilmember reached out to us and we worked on a similar bill, which was recently introduced, although it is not yet law. After passage in NYC, now we need these protections for the rest of the women in New York State and across the country. We are working on pending legislation in New York State and in Congress, as well as other campaigns around the country. We are excited by this great momentum and expect more activity surrounding this issue in the coming months!
Any sense on how the U.S. compares to other countries in protection of pregnant workers? The United States is one of only three countries in the world that does not provide paid maternity leave. Dozens of other countries also provide paid paternity leave. In the United States, even the unpaid Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) only applies to half of the private sector workforce. Women who are not covered could be fired just for taking time off to recover from childbirth.
What changes do you hope to make come true in the U.S. in the next decade when it comes to protecting pregnant women in the workplace?
The federal Pregnant Workers Fairness Act would provide protections similar to the New York City bill of the same name and is critically necessary to ensure that women across the country are not forced to sacrifice their economic security when they are pregnant and need an adjustment at work. We also need paid family leave at the federal level so that caregivers do not go broke when taking care of a loved one. There are many other necessary pieces of legislation, but those two would be a great start!
What are some of the most common things women don’t know about their legal standing as pregnant employees?
Many women are surprised to find out that they could be fired or pushed out of their jobs when they are pregnant and simply need a minor change to stay at work. They also often do not know that, if they are not eligible for Family Medical Leave Act coverage, that they are not entitled to any protected time off to have a baby. Unfortunately, we often have to be the bearer of bad news, since our legal protections have so far to go!
Any tips for ladies who are thinking about having a baby but scared about how it will affect them professionally?
Buy [a Better Balance’s book] [Babygate]2 or see if your local library has a copy! The book is designed to educate parents and parents-to-be about their rights in the workplace. Do your homework to understand what rights you may be entitled to. Knowledge is power and you will feel much better about your decisions if they come from a place of understanding. If you come out of your research disappointed, then we hope you will use that energy to help push for better laws and policies! Also, check out our website www.abetterbalance.org for up-to-date information and call our free legal clinic.
Pregnant Women Unite!
Elissa Strauss has written for the Forward over a number of years. She is a regular contributor to CNN, whose work has been published in a number of publications including The New York Times, Glamour, ELLE, and Longreads.