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Pregnant Workers Fairness Act

Published:  May 25, 2017

The Massachusetts House of Representatives may have unwittingly opened a Pandora’s Box with the May 10, 2017, passage of H.3680.  The bill, referred to as the “Pregnant Workers Fairness Act,” amends M.G.L. c. 151B, § 4 to require employers provide reasonable accommodations to pregnant employees.  This will change the way pregnancy is treated under Massachusetts law.  Whereas discrimination based on pregnancy/maternity was previously considered an aspect of sex/gender discrimination, now the pregnancy/maternity will, in effect, be treated in a manner more akin to disability discrimination.

Under the bill, employers will be required to engage in an interactive process with pregnant employees to provide reasonable accommodations.  However, unlike with disabilities, the bill also spells out specific accommodations which, based on the draft language, appear to be considered facially reasonable under state law, such as more frequent and/or longer breaks, modified equipment or seating, job and responsibility restructuring, modified schedules and private, non-bathroom space to express breast milk.  In the abstract, these accommodation seems like a logically recognition of the need to provide equitable conditions for pregnant women in the workplace.  Perhaps that’s why the bill passed by a vote of 150-to-0 in the House.  The bill is also expected to pass easily in the Senate, and be signed by Governor Baker.

Cause for celebration?  Not quite yet.  Although the bill seems like a no-brainer, the bill is drafted in a way that, if passed as is, will cause chaos for employers.  The first issue is that the bill has no specified effective date, and therefore, would, by default, become law only 90 days after it is signed by the Governor.  Would you be ready to provide modified equipment and/or private, non-bathroom spaces for lactation as early as this August?  Also of concern is the fact that the bill does not address the duration of accommodations.  Although the bill is aimed at accommodating pregnant employees, the lactation provisions imply that the accommodations can continue after an employee has given birth.  However, the bill does not address for how long after giving birth an employee is entitled to reasonable accommodations.  As drafted, employers have no way of knowing if they must provide modified schedules and/or job restructuring to new mothers for four weeks, four months or four years.  It would be in ever employer’s best interest to undertake a self-assessment of their readiness to implement these policies sooner rather than later.

If you have any questions about the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, please contact the attorneys at Royal, P.C.