Pregnant School Employees Now Have More Rights at Work. Here’s What to Know

Although the education workforce is predominantly female, schools don’t often provide employees accommodations for pregnancy and the postpartum period. A new law will change that.

The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act went into effect this week, granting employees the right to request and receive accommodations during pregnancy and postpartum. All public employers and private employers with 15 or more employees—meaning virtually all schools—are required to comply with the new federal law.

That means pregnant school employees who are experiencing common pregnancy-related symptoms like back pain, morning sickness, or fatigue can receive workplace accommodations such as being allowed to sit or have a snack while working, taking more frequent breaks, and having a more flexible schedule. They also have greater access to time off—including for doctor’s appointments, to recover from childbirth, and to treat postpartum conditions, like depression—although it won’t necessarily be paid.

Experts say the new law is a victory for working parents, who often lack institutional support. Most educators don’t have access to paid parental leave, and many teachers have long said that finding the time and privacy to pump breast milk for their babies at school is exceedingly difficult, if not impossible. Teachers who have experienced pregnancy loss say they didn’t have support from their district to take as much time as they needed.

But there’s a growing sense of momentum for family-friendly policies at work: This spring, at least four states have enacted some form of paid maternity leave for educators. And the Providing Urgent Maternal Protections for Nursing Mothers Act, which was signed into federal law in December and went into full effect earlier this spring, requires all employers to provide breastfeeding workers a private place to pump, as well as reasonable break times, for the first year of their baby’s life.

The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act also provides break time and a private place to pump, but there are no time restrictions—meaning that employees who breastfeed past 12 months are still protected.

Education Week spoke to Jessica Lee, a senior staff attorney at the Center for WorkLife Law, an advocacy and research organization based at the law school of the University of California, San Francisco, about what accommodations pregnant educators might be granted under the new law and what schools’ responsibilities will be.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

How does this law change the landscape for pregnant educators?

Before the law was in effect, if a pregnant teacher needed an accommodation, the only federal laws that would protect them are the disability laws that would require a reasonable accommodation if that teacher had a pregnancy-related disability. Pretty severe complications are where we would usually see that use. There was a lot of confusion about who is eligible for accommodations at work.

We saw people with really severe morning sickness, for example, where they could not function normally, but their school system said, “That’s actually not a disability. We’re not going to qualify that as a disability. You have to do everything like normal. We’re not making any changes for you.”

It was tough for employees to understand their rights, and it was even hard for the employers to actually know when they were obligated to make changes at work for their pregnant workers and postpartum workers. But now with the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, everything is so much more clear for everybody involved.

Jessica Lee, a senior staff attorney at the Center for WorkLife Law

I’m really excited about the folks who were living in a gray area before—especially thinking of folks who needed time off for fertility treatments or because they had a miscarriage. Before, it was just a disaster to negotiate those changes that they need. Now there’s a clear right, where before they had to jump through hurdle after hurdle after hurdle to get what they needed.

[In the past], we saw a lot of teachers get into a bind where they were new to a district, and they needed changes at work because of pregnancy, and were just told, “Sorry, you’re not even qualifying for FMLA [the Family Medical Leave Act, which gives up to 12 weeks of unpaid time off to employees who have been in their job for at least a year]. We don’t have to give you anything because you’re new here.” The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act doesn’t have anything like that. It’s, “Do you need change due to pregnancy? Great.”

Many teachers say they don’t have reliable access to bathroom breaks because they’re in front of students for hours at a time. How will that change for pregnant employees with this law?

It’s a constant concern of teachers—getting those bathroom breaks or even food breaks, especially when you’re pregnant and you need to eat, drink, and use the bathroom much more frequently. Before now, there was no national right to have those breaks. But the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act requires schools to provide changes like additional breaks to eat, drink, and use the bathroom.

I’m expecting a lot of school systems are going to open up access to more assistants or floaters to come around and enable their workers to take those breaks that they need. There’s really no excuse for forcing a pregnant worker to not eat or drink when they need it to stay safe, or to not use the bathroom. It’s shameful, and it’s really easy to give those quick breaks. I’m very hopeful that now that there’s this legal requirement, more people will be able to access those breaks that they need during pregnancy and postpartum.

And similarly, if a pregnant teacher was having morning sickness, they could ask to come in a little bit later in the day?

Absolutely. If a pregnant teacher is having morning sickness, they could ask for a schedule adjustment. They could ask for a change in duties as well. I know a lot of folks are hit really hard with that early morning bus duty, for example. They could request that somebody else handles that, and they do a different job that’s not having them on their feet when their symptoms are the worst.

Those are the sorts of changes that we expect to see a lot of—the shifts in duties, more breaks to protect people’s health, the ability to get to those doctor’s appointments when they need them. And then, time off—it’s always a challenge for folks, but this is a little bit of extra protection to make sure that people are actually able to take care of their health during and soon after pregnancy.

The law says that employers must provide reasonable accommodations unless they would impose an “undue hardship” on their business operations. What would that entail for schools?

The “undue hardship” [test] is really case specific. It’s going to depend on the situation in the district at the time: What are their staffing levels? What’s the budget like? It will also depend on just how difficult it is to provide what that particular employee is asking for.

I think that we will probably see some school systems raise legitimate concerns about staffing. I know a lot of schools are really in a staffing crisis right now. If it’s an accommodation that requires really intense changes in staffing, I could see that being an issue.

But I do think that when we’re talking about the needs that aren’t really staff-intensive, it’s going to be pretty uncommon to find a legitimate hardship. Allowing someone to eat or drink in their classroom, or those very quick breaks to the bathroom—they’re just common sense and pretty easy for employers to provide. I think it’s going to be challenging for folks to argue that they can’t do it.

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