(NEW YORK) — Natasha Jackson faced what she says was pregnancy discrimination 13 years ago. She was three months pregnant with her third child when she was put on leave from her job as an account manager at a local furniture store in Charleston, South Carolina.
Jackson told ABC News that her workplace placed her on a 12-week unpaid Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) leave because her doctor recommended she avoid lifting anything over 20 pounds, a medical recommendation commonly made to pregnant women. At the end of the unpaid leave, Jackson said she was ready to come back to work but was told she had to wait until the baby was delivered and could come back if her position was still available. She received a letter two months after giving birth telling her she was terminated.
Jackson says she brought a pregnancy discrimination claim against the company, which took two years and she eventually lost in arbitration. She told ABC News she was the primary source of income for her family at the time, and her termination set her and her family on a course toward homelessness.
“It was a downward spiral from there for years. I got a divorce because of the financial strain it put on my marriage,” Jackson told ABC News. “That one day changed the course of my life.”
Jackson eventually used her voice to fight back and help other pregnant women. She shared her story publicly, including in legislative testimony, which led her to advocacy work. It’s because of stories like hers that experts say that this new federal law has come to fruition.
On Tuesday, Jackson was among the women celebrating the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (PWFA) going into effect. The new law requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to workers for known limitations related to pregnancy, childbirth or related medical conditions.
“No postpartum worker will lose her job at a critical time in her growing family’s finances for needing time to recover from childbirth,” Dina Bakst, co-founder and co-president of Better Balance, an organization dedicated to advancing justice for working families in the U.S. said.
“No longer will women nationwide face the impossible choice between maintaining a healthy pregnancy and their economic security,” she added.
Signed by President Joe Biden at the end of 2022, this new federal law will, according to experts, close an existing loophole that has left pregnant and postpartum workers without the legally protected ability to request accommodations.
“The gap that exists means too many women were forced to choose between keeping themselves and their pregnancy healthy or making a paycheck [to] support their families,” Laura Narefsky, counsel at The National Women’s Law Center, one of the organizations that has been working for close to a decade on pushing through this legislation, said.
While the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 prohibited employers from discriminating against workers on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions, experts like Narefsky say that it never created a “robust affirmative right to create accommodations to keep working.”
“The problem came when a pregnant worker needed a reasonable accommodation for her pregnancy. Without this law, it required workers to prove that others have gotten similar accommodations; the burden of proof was too large,” Elizabeth Gedmark, vice president at Better Balance, explained.
Examples of reasonable accommodations under PWFA include time off to recover from childbirth, pregnancy loss and postpartum depression; additional breaks to drink water, eat, or use the bathroom; flexible scheduling to attend prenatal or postnatal appointments; light duty or help with manual labor; a transfer away from dangerous chemicals; the ability to work remotely; and new equipment like a stool to sit on or a maternity uniform.
“Now it’s a new day. This law closes those gaps, and we now have additional protections, especially for low-wage workers in physically demanding jobs,” Gedmark added.
This law comes into play at a time when the U.S. has fallen behind its counterparts in women’s labor force participation. According to data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the percentage of American women participating in the labor market is 69% versus 77% in Canada, 75.1% in the UK, and 75.7% in Germany.
Experts say this is likely due to a combination of the lack of federal parental leave policy and accessible and affordable childcare.
“The U.S. lags behind every other nation as wealthy and as developed as ours, not only for women but for any caregivers. This law is a long overdue step to protect women in the workplace,” Narefsky said.
For Jackson, a law like this would have “meant the world because I saw my job as a career. I saw myself having my own furniture store. If I had this, it would have saved me a lot of trauma and heartache; it would have saved me from financial stress, from having an unhappy pregnancy.”
“Moving forward, my hope is that people let go of their fear. I have people reach out to me all the time, afraid. They are still hiding their pregnancies; they don’t want to tell employers. Use your voice — there is help out there, and there are resources now,” Jackson, who is now a community advocate with Better Balance, said.
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