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By John McCoy
The Bay State’s newest law shores up workplace discrimination protections for pregnant women.
The Massachusetts Pregnant Worker Fairness Act goes into effect April 1. Gov. Charlie Baker (R) signed the measure into law in July after it unanimously passed both the state House and Senate.
With the law, Massachusetts joins 21 other states and the District of Columbia in crafting legislation expressly aimed at protecting pregnant employees.
The Massachusetts law’s enactment comes at a time when gender workplace issues are especially contentious and accordingly can be seen as both sword and shield. It simultaneously offers support for women and their unique medical concerns while operating as a means to penalize employers in violation.
In anticipation, some companies are determining how to best prepare themselves. “We’ve heard from over 20 companies looking for guidance on implementation,” Carolyn Ryan of the Boston Chamber of Commerce told Bloomberg Law.
An employer’s breach of the MPWFA could open it up to monetary damages in the form of back pay, front pay, and attorneys’ fees.
“The law pretty much puts more teeth in place for employers who weren’t being as proactive and supportive of this segment of the workforce,” Steven Taranto, human resources director at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, told Bloomberg Law.
The federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 already requires that pregnant employees receive the same treatment as all other employees in the workplace. The MPWFA goes further by creating an accommodation mandate and creating guidelines that protect pregnant and nursing employees from reprisal and adverse action due to pregnancy and pregnancy-associated conditions.
Among the provisions of the legislation is the requirement that employers provide “reasonable accommodations” to pregnant workers and new mothers, such as modified work schedules, longer breaks, and having a private, non-bathroom space for expressing breast milk.
Boston attorney Gauri Punjabi told Bloomberg Law that “while the requirement to provide break time to express milk” under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act “only applies to employers with 50 or more employees, the MPWFA applies to employers with as few as six.”
“Federal law also caps the time that an employer is obligated to provide accommodations to one year after the child’s birth, while the new Massachusetts law has no time limit,” said Punjabi, who covers the full scope of labor and employment law at Mintz Levin.
The accommodations component is the heart of the legislation. Once an employee makes a request for an accommodation, it triggers the requirement that the employer and employee discuss the best course of action.
But Punjabi points out that while communication is key, one thing an employer can’t do, by statute, is “assume anything, like what a pregnant employee is capable of doing, nor can they force leave or accommodations on someone that didn’t request them.”
The necessity of communication was reiterated by Taranto: “This new law simply states there’s an obligation to communicate and inform workers about their rights.”
“Mass General has a very solid practice of ensuring the rights of protected workers and women who are pregnant,” Taranto continued. “We have 18 lactation rooms. The government never identified a number, but our practice has always been when there’s a new facility or building, we work with the department occupying the building to make sure they’re mindful and establish a resources room, so a mom needing to express breast milk doesn’t have an issue getting to an appropriate space.”
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