Alabama lawmakers are eyeing several proposals that could have significant impact on the rights of pregnant people and, specifically, pregnant workers.
Here’s a quick look at the proposed bills:
The most comprehensive is the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, HB 352, sponsored by Rep. Neil Rafferty, D-Birmingham. It would require all employers to provide reasonable accommodations for pregnant employees unless the accommodation would cause an undue hardship on the employer. (Read the text of the bill here.)
Currently, Alabama workers have no protections against pregnancy discrimination under state law.
“I think ensuring every person has the right to earn a living and participate in the labor force is fundamental to human dignity,” Rafferty told Reckon this week. “Pregnancy should not be a limiting factor on a person being able to have that dignity, and to support themselves and their family.”
Reasonable accommodations could include allowing a pregnant employee to avoid heavy lifting until after the baby’s birth, to take an extra bathroom break, or to keep a water bottle at her desk, he said.
Last year, the Tennessee legislature unanimously passed a similar bill. Pregnant worker laws have also passed in other Southern states, including Kentucky and South Carolina, where Rafferty said the business communities backed the bills. Nationwide, about 30 states already have similar laws on the books.
While certain types of pregnancy-related discrimination are covered by Federal law, it’s a confusing patchwork of statutes that can be hard for businesses to navigate, said Elizabeth Gedmark, vice president with A Better Balance, a family and workplace legal service that helped craft similar bills in several states.
“This kind of state law is helpful for businesses, especially midsize employers who can’t afford a big legal team and neither can their employees,” she said. “What they really need and want is clear language that helps them navigate these situations.”
Keeping pregnant workers healthy and working is good for the individual and good for the state’s economy and workforce, she said.
“Right now, we are seeing women pushed out of the workforce in droves,” she said. “Anyone able to keep working and maintain her health should be able to do so.”
Rafferty said he hopes to build bipartisan support for the bill as he introduces it this week.
“We’re not just talking about the woman’s health, which is crucial, but we’re also talking about the developing child’s health as well,” said Rafferty. “I have a lot of women in my district who are working to support their families, and I want to make sure they are able to do so.”
Pumping breastmilk at work
A bill, SB100, would require all employers to provide employees who are breastfeeding with time and a private place to express breast milk while at work unless doing so would “unreasonably disrupt” company operations. (Read the text of the bill here.)
Sen. Tom Whatley, R-Auburn, said he sponsored the bill at the request of a constituent who is a teacher in a public school system.
“The bill encourages business owners to do their best to have a place for a nursing mother to be able to express milk,” Whatley told Reckon. “The biggest thing (the bill) can do, in my opinion, is start the discussion for how we can make sure we come to an agreement everybody can live with.”
More than half of all states have laws that protect workers who need to express breastmilk, but Alabama is not one of them.
Federal law requires employers who meet certain requirements to provide employees reasonable break times for expressing breast milk and a private, non-bathroom space in which to do it. But in absence of a state law, some employers are unclear about what is required of them.
Alabama has the third-lowest breastfeeding rate in the nation, according to the Centers for Disease Control. But the benefits are legion for baby, mother and even for businesses, said Gayle Whatley (no relation to the senator), chair of the Alabama Breastfeeding Committee. The committee sponsors a Breastfeeding-Friendly Workplace recognition program.
Breastfeeding helps babies fight off illness and reduces the risk of health problems later in life. For mothers, it can reduce the risk of post-partum depression and other illness. A mother able to express breast milk benefits employers because she and baby are happy and healthy, and miss less work for illness, Whatley said.
“It’s a win-win situation for all sides if employers were only made aware, and so many of them are not,” she told Reckon. “They’re opposed at first because they don’t know.”
Most of the requests for help the Alabama Breastfeeding Committee receives, she said, are from teachers who aren’t given accommodations.
“They’re some of our highest rate of breastfeeders, so we could really make a difference there,” she said of the bill’s potential impact.
Pregnancy and incarceration
A bill sponsored by Rep. Laura Hall, D-Huntsville, would prohibit jails and prisons from physically restraining – sometimes called shackling – pregnant or postpartum inmates in most situations. (Read the text of the bill here.)
The bill, HB36, would require state prisons and local law enforcement at the county and municipal level to adopt federal standards. In 2019, Congress passed the bipartisan First Step Act, which banned federal prisons from restraining inmates during pregnancy, labor and postpartum recovery except in a narrow set of circumstances.
But Alabama has no law that prevents local jails from restraining inmates during pregnancy or labor. It’s a practice that could compromise healthcare and put the health of the pregnant inmate and the baby at risk, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the leading national organization for obstetricians.