Pregnant Workers Fairness Act Evens Playing Field for Life Sciences Employees
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When superstar Rihanna revealed her pregnancy during the halftime show of the Super Bowl halftime show, the baby bump had Twitter abuzz. In contrast, pregnant coworkers are commonplace, so much so that some may not be familiar with the provisions of a recently enacted federal law.
Nonetheless, the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (PWFA) has been praised by many in the biopharma industry who see it as a much-needed step forward in protecting the rights of pregnant employees.
With its passage in December and implementation in 2023, advocates say pregnant employees can rest easier as they no longer have to worry about the adverse effects pregnancy may have on career advancement.
A Better Balance led the effort to pass the PWFA in December 2022, and the group's mission is to use the law to advance workers’ rights, particularly for women. The measure will become mandatory for all companies with more than 15 employees in June 2023.
The PWFA will address these barriers by requiring employers to provide reasonable accommodations to pregnant workers unless doing so would cause an undue hardship. The act will allow pregnant workers to continue to perform their jobs safely and effectively and contribute to the biotech industry without having to choose between their pregnancy and career.
A recent report published by BioSpace indicated that many women in the life sciences often find themselves choosing between family and career.
In the special report, "Through the Microscope: Women in Life Sciences,” BioSpace reported that “as more women enter the industry and move through their life science careers, employers should ensure leadership positions are filled with a diverse set of talent,” based on data collected among life science workers.
The PWFA helps ensure employers do just that.
Given that many women opt to start families just as they enter a pivotal phase of career development, protections in the workplace maintain parity with male counterparts.
The bill was intended to address a loophole in disability and discrimination laws by requiring employers to provide reasonable accommodations to pregnant and postpartum workers.
Getting the law enacted is only half the battle. An analysis conducted by A Better Balance found that pregnant workers have been denied accommodations in more than two-thirds of cases.
Though the bill has languished in Congress for more than 10 years, with broad bipartisan support (think: U.S Chamber of Commerce to ACLU) and high voter approval (some studies put this number as high as 89%), it may be the pandemic that pushed it through to approval.
“The pandemic put an incredible spotlight on the untenable working conditions women and people of color face,” A Better Balance’s report stated. The new federal law ensures complete protection for women in the 20 states that may not have had preexisting provisions before it was passed.
Pregnancy Accommodations in the Life Sciences
For women in the life sciences, there are a set of concerns to review, ideally, before pregnancy, said one expert from San Diego-based Juno Diagnostics, a practice of prenatal health specialists.
“Consider your job duties and the substances with which you come into close contact on a normal working day,” Katie Sagaser, M.S., LCGC, director of genetic counseling, told BioSpace.
“Are you standing for multiple hours at a time with no opportunity to sit, or do you work with chemicals like formaldehyde, nitrous oxide, or heavy metals? You might benefit from having a preconception consultation with your OB/GYN to discuss any potential recommendations for pregnancy modifications to your job duties.”
“If you work at the lab bench and have questions about the reagents with which you come into close contact, I’d recommend setting up a preconception consultation with a reproductive genetic counselor experienced in teratology – the study of potentially harmful exposures during pregnancy lactation – as they can help you understand whether the substances you handle are associated with birth defects or other pregnancy risks.”
The cost of implementing the PWFA in the life sciences is expected to be relatively low, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO).
Implementation costs depend on various factors, including the employer's size, the specific accommodations required, and the existing policies and practices of the employer.
However, some employers have raised concerns about the potential cost and administrative burden of complying with the new law.
The primary costs involve modifying work schedules, providing additional leave or purchasing assistive devices, according to the CBO. Some employers may also need to make physical changes to their workspaces, such as installing additional handrails or creating private lactation spaces.
Thus, the cost of accommodations would need to be balanced against the cost of not accommodating the worker, which could include increased turnover, lower morale or legal expenses.
Data detailed in "Connecting the Dots," a BioSpace series covering diversity in the life sciences, showed that the confluence of childbirth and caretaking falls most heavily on women at the same time in their lives when their careers can be most demanding (25-44). This challenge may hold them back compared to their male counterparts who are often freer to pursue leadership posts.
“But with the PWFA, there should be more peace of mind in your employers’ obligation towards pregnancy accommodations … your employer just may be grateful for an early pregnancy heads-up so they can plan for these accommodations in advance,” Sagaser said.