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This law is a lifeline for pregnant workers even as an abortion dispute complicates its enforcement


NEW YORK (AP) — Victoria Cornejo Barrera thought the legal helpline for workers sounded too good to be true.

A month earlier, Cornejo Barrera had been forced to take leave from her job as head custodian at a South Carolina high school after she turned in a doctor's note asking to be exempt from tasks like climbing ladders and lifting more than 20 pounds because she was pregnant.

She spent a month crying and blaming herself for thinking she could keep her job while pregnant. She used up all her accumulated paid time off because she couldn't afford to go without a paycheck. Then she got a notice from human resources saying she would have to start paying $600 a month to stay on health insurance while on unpaid leave.

“I was feeling so guilty. I was feeling like my pregnancy was the problem,” Cornejo Barrera said.

Searching for help online, she came across the website run by the legal advocacy organization A Better Balance, explaining about a federal law called the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act that entitled her to the types accommodations she had been seeking. It had gone into effect in June 2023, a month before she was pushed out of her job.

Was the law really on her side? Cornejo Barrera called the helpline.

A new law's complicated first year

Nearly 500 workers in similar circumstances have contacted the helpline in the year since the implementation of the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, which strengthens the rights of workers to seek accommodations for pregnancy-related needs. The experiences of those workers tell a complicated story about the impact of a new law that is still unfamiliar to many employers, according to a report released Tuesday by A Better Balance, the organization that spearheaded a decade-long campaign for the law, which Congress finally passed in December 2022.

Most of those workers swiftly obtained accommodation after learning about their rights and invoking them with their employers, said Dina Bakst, co-founder and co-president of A Better Balance. But many women confronted employers who didn't know about the law, misunderstood its scope or simply refused to comply, according to the report.

A bitter legal battle over whether the law covers abortion is further complicating its enforcement.

The dispute centers on Equal Employment Opportunity Commission regulations that took effect Tuesday detailing how employers should comply with the law, and which included abortion among the pregnancy-related conditions that entitle workers to time off and other accommodations.

On Monday, a federal judge in Louisiana temporarily prohibited the EEOC from enforcing the abortion provision of its rules against employers located in Louisiana and Mississippi, or against the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and three other religious groups that filed a consolidated lawsuit against the EEOC, arguing that the abortion provision is an illegal interpretation of the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act.

Another judge in Arkansas last week dismissed a similar lawsuit filed by Republican attorneys general from 17 states, but Arkansas Attorney General Tim Griffin, who is leading the case, said he is considering legal options to continue pursuing the challenge.

That lawsuit had asked the judge to suspend the EEOC rules in their entirety, a prospect that the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Women's Law Center, along with more than 20 labor and women’s advocacy groups, warned in amicus briefs could thwart the successful implementation of law. The EEOC's rules, for example, make clear that employers cannot delay requests by asking pregnant workers for onerous paperwork to back claims of common pregnancy-related limitations such as morning sickness or back pain.

Although the pregnant workers law would remain in place even without the EEOC rules, advocates say it's a badly needed tool for settling disputes and training employers on compliance. According to A Better Balance, one out of seven workers who contacted its helpline since the law took effect said their employers had ordered them to take leave rather than grant them reasonable accommodations.

Cornejo Barrera was among them, but her employer reversed the decision after she sent her human resources department a letter invoking her rights. Within two days, she shared language from the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act with her supervisor, who then told her she could return to work immediately.

Raquel Robinson, a telecommunication specialist in Ohio, also ultimately prevailed in a similar confrontation with her company. After her daughter was born in October 2022, Robinson was diagnosed with postpartum depression.

“Mentally, I just was not in a good place where I felt like I was good enough to be my daughter’s mom,” she said.

After Robinson's disability leave ended in July 2023, her therapist told her she was entitled to work from home under the new law. But her company resisted her request for more than a month.

Robinson reached out to A Better Balance for help and the company relented.

Other workers are still fighting to be protected under the law. The EEOC says it has received 1,869 charges so far citing violations of the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act and has resolved more than 450, though it has not provided details on the cases.

The abortion issue complicates the law

The law's passage in 2022 came after years of campaigning by advocacy groups and women in low-wage jobs who shared stories of being denied even basic accommodations. But Republican lawmakers and conservative religious leaders who had overwhelmingly supported the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act were furious when the EEOC rules explicitly included abortion.

Citing numerous court rulings, the EEOC in its regulations said it was conforming to decades of legal precedent establishing that pregnancy-related discrimination laws include abortion.

Mylissa Farmer, the woman at the center of a federal investigation of two hospitals who refused to provide her with an emergency abortion, said her ordeal shows why the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act must include abortion.

Farmer sought emergency treatment after her water broke early at 17 weeks of pregnancy in August 2022. Doctors at hospitals in Missouri and Kansas told Farmer her fetus would not survive, that her amniotic fluid had emptied and that she was at risk for serious infection or losing her uterus but they refused to provide an abortion because of state bans. She and her husband traveled for hours while she was in labor before an hospital in Illinois provided her with an abortion.

Farmer, who was working a low-wage job as a sales representative, said her supervisor repeatedly contacted her during her ordeal to pressure her to return to work. She said her doctor recommended she take two weeks off to recover but she returned to work after two days because she was afraid of getting fired. But she ended up facing discipline after absences to cope with the physical and mental trauma of losing her pregnancy.

“I was just not able to get the care that I needed at the time and it made it really difficult to even deal with the emotional loss of what we were going through,” said Farmer, who is being represented by the National Women's Law Center in a complaint against the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.


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