State Sen. Amanda M. Cappelletti (D-Montgomery) speaks during a virtual public hearing on the need for workplace accommodations for pregnant and postpartum Pennsylvanians. Amanda Cappelletti
State Sen. Amanda M. Cappelletti (D-Montgomery) speaks during a virtual public hearing on the need for workplace accommodations for pregnant and postpartum Pennsylvanians.

A bill proposed by state Sen. Amanda M. Cappelletti (D-Montgomery) seeks to address the lack of workplace accommodations for pregnant and postpartum Pennsylvanians.

HARRISBURG — Pregnant women in Texas are afforded more workplace accommodations than their counterparts in Pennsylvania. 

That was one of the more eye-opening takeaways from a virtual public hearing this week on the need for workplace accommodations for pregnant and postpartum Pennsylvanians.

State Sens. Amanda M. Cappelletti (D-Montgomery), Katie Muth (D-Montgomery), and Judy Schwank (D-Berks) hosted the hearing, which featured testimony highlighting some of the agonizing choices women in Pennsylvania have been forced to make between their jobs and their health due to a lack of workplace accommodations.

Marianne Fray, CEO of the Southeastern Pennsylvania-based Maternity Care Coalition, shared with the senators how a pregnant retail worker was given the choice to either stand on the job per company policy or quit.

“Elizabeth started working at a clothing retailer as a cashier during her first trimester of pregnancy,” Fray said. “In her second trimester, her legs and ankles became swollen. Elizabeth asked if she would be able to rest on a stool at the register when no shoppers were in the store. Her manager denied the request and gave her the ultimatum – stand while working or resign from her position. Elizabeth chose to resign from the position so she could prioritize the health of her and her baby.”

Cappelletti is proposing legislation that would protect workers like Elizabeth. Senate Bill 716, known as the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, would make it unlawful for an employer to refuse a pregnant employee’s request for reasonable accommodation — such as periodic rest or a chair for an employee who stands for a long period of time, assistance with heavy lifting, and temporary job restructuring — unless doing so would represent an undue hardship to the employer. 

Currently, pregnant workers in Philadelphia are afforded accommodations through the Fair Practices ordinance. Some pregnant workers in Pittsburgh are also protected by local laws. But workers elsewhere in the state do not have the right to minor pregnancy accommodations, even for simple access to a water bottle throughout the day. 

A patchwork of local laws protecting workers in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh isn’t enough. And given that neighboring states like West Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, and New Jersey are among the 12 other states (including Texas) offering workplace accommodations, Cappelletti said, it was time for Pennsylvania to step up. 

“Today’s hearing illustrates how necessary the protections in Senate Bill 716 are for pregnant Pennsylvanians,” Cappelletti said. “Pregnant people should not have to choose between a paycheck and a healthy pregnancy, especially when small and reasonable changes can be made to accommodate pregnant workers while maintaining a healthy, productive work environment.”

During her testimony, Women’s Law Project legal fellow Sophia Elliot emphasized how vital Cappelletti’s legislation would be in protecting the rights of minority women, who often work low-wage jobs. Even when they leave the workforce for only a short period due to a pregnancy, their earning potential and prospects for advancement are stunted.  

“Even if these women are able to return to the workforce later, the resulting gap in their employment history puts them at a risk for reduced income and seniority for the rest of their working lives, contributing to the gender pay gap,” Elliot said. “This loss of income also falls the hardest on Black and brown women, who are concentrated in low-wage work and more likely to be the primary source of economic support for their families.”

Voicing support for her colleague’s bill, Schwank said the pregnant workers of Pennsylvania, particularly the Black and brown women Elliot spoke of, have lacked basic rights in the workplace for far too long.

“The problems we face in terms of workplace accommodations for pregnant women aren’t new,” Schwank said. “As our testifiers highlighted, far too many women face pregnancy discrimination in the workplace, and disproportionately, they tend to be women of color. Denying pregnant women simple, commonsense accommodations can lead to long-term health complications and force women out of the workforce. Enacting SB 716 is a long overdue, noncontroversial measure that will no longer force women to choose between their health and a paycheck.” 

SB 716 is currently in the state Senate’s Labor and Industry committee.