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June 17 2015

Protecting Pregnant Workers Without Harming Their Economic Opportunities

Carrie L. Lukas

Studies show that policies that are supposed to provide benefits for women can actually backfire.  Such poorly crafted policies aren’t compassionate and don’t advancing the cause of equality. 

The idea of a boss penalizing a woman for being pregnant—trying to force her out of her job, or demoting her—is abhorrent.

First, it seems incredibly short-sighted from a business-perspective:  pregnancy and the medical complications related to it are typically very short-lived. Getting rid of a valued worker—which requires having to identify and train a replacement—over a condition that will probably last for well short of a year seems unlikely to pay off. 

Second, it is simple unfair and inhumane.  Businesses ought to respect their employees as people.  Treating employees fairly, supporting them during times of illness or pregnancies, should be standard operating procedure.  Such policies will pay rewards in helping retain valued workers and to increase morale. 

Finally, discriminating against someone for being pregnant is against the law.  Employers ought to recognize that our government expects them to make reasonable accommodations to support workers who are pregnant, and do everything they can to live up to that ideal.  If they don’t, they could end up in court and facing significant legal costs. 

Clearly not all bosses and companies understand this and instead discriminate against pregnant women.   The Supreme Court recently found against United Parcel Service, which means that a court will hear the case of an employee who they failed to accommodate during her pregnancy.  Regardless of the finding of that court, reports suggest she was treated terribly and UPS certainly ought to have done much more to support her when she was pregnant.     

This case and concern that other pregnant workers are suffering discrimination is encouraging some to want to increase legal protections for pregnant workers.  To that end, Democrats recently introduced the PregnantWorkers Fairness Act, which would augment protections, spell out more specifically how pregnant workers must be accommodated, and increase potential penalties for failing to meet these standards. 

This sounds great at first read—who wouldn’t want to help pregnant women and punish terrible bosses that treat women badly?—but it’s important to consider carefully how such new laws will play out in the real world.  Will they really help women by preventing discrimination and compensating those who are treated badly?  Or will they do more damage to women’s economic prospects by making employers more reticent to hire women of childbearing age in the first place? 

The New York Times recently detailed research that shows how policies meant to help women workers—by providing them paid time off and requiring other accommodations—can backfire, reducing women’s take home pay and discouraging companies from hiring women.  The same dynamic will occur if legislation makes pregnant women (or women who may become pregnant) seem like potential liabilities and therefore unattractive hires. 

Congress could consider how to clarify existing law that renders discrimination against pregnant women unlawful, to better spell out how reasonable accommodations are expected and cannot be avoided because of union contracts or based on other employment systems.  Yet women need to recognize that more laws and bigger government often don’t make things better for women. They can, in fact, make women’s prospect much worse by limiting women’s economic opportunities. 

Independent Women's Forum is an educational 501(c)(3) dedicated to developing and advancing policies that aren’t just well intended, but actually enhance people’s freedom, choices, and opportunities. IWF is the sister organization of the Independent Women’s Voice.​
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