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Despite Proposed Bill, TN Lags in Accommodation for Pregnant Workers

Tennessee ranks 41st in the country for female labor-force participation rates, according to the Institute for Women's Policy Research. (Adobe Stock)
Tennessee ranks 41st in the country for female labor-force participation rates, according to the Institute for Women's Policy Research. (Adobe Stock)
January 21, 2020

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- A bill in Congress that would ensure pregnant women aren't fired from their jobs for requesting reasonable accommodations in the workplace has received bipartisan approval in the House Education and Labor Committee, and soon should move to the House floor for a vote.

The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act is co-sponsored by 26 representatives from both sides of the aisle. Elizabeth Gedmark is vice president of the workforce advocacy group A Better Balance. She said gaps in current state laws leave Tennessee's pregnant workers at risk of losing their jobs for making minor requests, such as needing to sit or avoid heavy lifting.

"We for many years have been working on a Tennessee Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, and that bill has garnered bipartisan support," Gedmark said. "We expect that it will again this year, and we think that 2020 is the year that Tennessee will be next."

The bill is sponsored by Democratic state Rep. Johnny Shaw of Bolivar. In 2018, Tennessee made national headlines when a New York Times investigation revealed six Memphis women had suffered miscarriages after lifting heavy boxes without being given breaks at their employer's warehouse.

Gedmark said outdated policies aren't in line with the fact that women now outnumber men in the labor force, according to the latest federal data.

"Women are now the majority of the workforce, so this is not the 1950s," she said. "And we can't rely on laws from the '50s, '60s and '70s for our reality now, where women are working farther into their pregnancies and more and more women are working, and they're supporting their families."

She pointed out while a 1978 federal law bars employers from firing someone because they're pregnant, it doesn't protect workers from unsafe working conditions. Gedmark added that pregnancy discrimination remains widespread and is an uphill battle in courtrooms.

"Even in court cases where women had gone all the way to court with this issue, two-thirds of them in post-2015 cases lost their pregnancy-discrimination claims," she said.

She also noted black women filed nearly 30% of pregnancy-discrimination complaints between 2010 and 2015, despite making up only 14% of the female labor force.

Nadia Ramlagan, Public News Service - TN