I’ve never been pregnant, so I don’t know what it’s like. But in writing this blog, I called my cousin who is pregnant with her first child, due in just 2 months, and still working hard. I asked her, “What is it like to work while pregnant?” What followed was a laundry list of very reasonable complaints: she hates wearing business attire, she becomes famished or queasy without warning, and she has to use the bathroom a ton. “The baby doesn’t care if you are in a meeting,” she told me. This sounds pretty awful and, up until this year, employers didn’t have to make life any easier for their pregnant employees.
However, on January 21, 2014, the New Jersey’s Pregnant Worker’s Fairness Act (“PWFA”) became law. This law, which amends the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (see N.J.S.A. 10:5-12), expressly bans pregnancy discrimination and requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to employees who are pregnant or experiencing pregnancy-related conditions. Prior to the enactment of the PWFA, pregnant employees could only receive reasonable accommodations if they were disabled. Normal, healthy pregnancies were not considered a disability under the law and, therefore, employers didn’t need to allow something as simple as additional trips to the bathroom for women falling into this category.
Under the Act, however, reasonable accommodations for pregnant employees are described as including bathroom breaks, breaks for increased water intake, periodic rest, assistance with manual labor, job restructuring or modified work schedules, and temporary transfers to less strenuous or hazardous work. Other accommodations could be required if they are determined to be reasonable. All that is required of a pregnant employee is that she request the accommodation “for needs related to the pregnancy . . . based on the advice of her physician.”
It is important to keep in mind, however, that an employer need not provide the requested accommodation if it would be an undue hardship on its business operations considering the size of the business, cost of the accommodation, the relationship of the accommodation to the essential requirements of the job, and other factors. In addition, pregnant employees cannot request as an accommodation additional leave time to which they would not normally be entitled.
Overall, this law represents an important change for women workers, who will no longer be penalized for the normal annoyances of pregnancy “interfering” with their work life.