Bill to protect pregnant workers passes U.S. Senate

The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, a bipartisan bill to ensure pregnant workers are treated fairly on the job and have reasonable accommodations at work, passed Thursday in the United States Senate as an amendment to the Fiscal Year 2023 federal appropriations bill. 

First introduced as legislation by U.S. Senator Bob Casey (D-PA) in 2012, the bill closes a loophole in the 1978 Pregnancy Discrimination Act by requiring employers to make temporary, reasonable accommodations—like a stool or a water bottle—so that pregnant women can continue to work safely. 

Seventy five percent of pregnant women and new mothers are in the workplace and need access to reasonable accommodations. The amendment to add the bill to the spending package passed 73-24. 

Casey and Bill Cassidy (R-LA), Chair and Ranking Member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Subcommittee on Children and Families, announced the Senate passage of the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act. 

Casey said in a statement that pregnancy should never be a barrier for women who want to stay in the workplace. “This legislation would provide commonsense protections for pregnant workers, like extra bathroom breaks or a stool for workers who stand, so they can continue working while not putting extra strain on their pregnancies.” 

The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act is endorsed by over 220 organizations, and Cassidy said the bill should have and could have passed overwhelmingly long ago with an up or down vote.“Regardless, this amendment ensured pregnant mothers will have the workplace accommodations they need. This is pro-mother, pro-life and pro-family.” 

Closely modeled after the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act ensures that employers with 15 or more employees provide reasonable accommodations that are often low-cost or no cost, unless it would pose an undue hardship to the employer. The bill includes protections not already codified in the ADA or the Pregnancy Discrimination Act. 

The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act will allow pregnant workers to continue working by ensuring they can have accommodations such as additional bathroom breaks, light duty, or a stool to sit on if a worker stands all day. The bill also prohibits employers from denying employment opportunities to women based on their need for reasonable accommodations due to childbirth or related medical conditions.

The ADA at 30 continues to change the lives of disabled

Thirty years ago this month, President George H.W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act, a landmark piece of bipartisan legislation that banned discrimination against the disabled in all areas of public life, including jobs.

There’s still a sizable gap between the employment rate of individuals with disabilities and those without. Barriers remain, whether it’s transportation issues or some other hurdle. Attitudes have definitely changed, however, and that is translating into more job opportunities. 

“There has definitely been progress, but there’s still a long way to go,” said Dan Stroud, executive director of the Disability Empowerment Center, which serves Lancaster and Lebanon counties.

The center, largely run by people with disabilities, offers information referral, peer mentoring, skill development, advocacy and sign language interpretation. It also helps people with job searches and applications, he said.

The economy can make it hard on people with disabilities who are employed, because “they tend to be the first people laid off,” Stroud said.

Now that businesses are more flexible with their employees working remotely, due to COVID-19, that could be a long-term benefit, he said. Someone with a disability who works at home wouldn’t have to contend with sometimes unreliable transportation, and an employer wouldn’t have to pay for expensive accommodations at the workplace.

Folks with handicaps really want to work, Stroud said, and are often some of a company’s better employees.

“I remember when it started,” said Tom Baldrige, longtime president and CEO of the Lancaster Chamber. “There was a lot of initial concern from businesses about the cost (of ADA accommodations). Now, looking back, there’s general acceptance, if not celebration,” including recognition of how effective the law has been in opening up doors – literally – for people with disabilities.

Accessibility has become more the norm, he said. One example is curb cuts at intersections and the freedom that offers wheelchair users and others to get where they need to go – including a job.

Society is much more sensitive to the needs of people with disabilities, he said.

Trying to bridge the gap

According to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, 37.6% of the disabled population ages 18-64 was employed in 2018. For the nondisabled, it was 78%.  In Pennsylvania, that employment figure was 38% for those with disabilities, and 79% for those without.

Among the disabled in Pennsylvania, the employment rate was 40% for whites, 29% for Blacks/African Americans and 34% for Hispanics. More than 28% of state residents ages 21-64 with a disability live below the poverty line.

Progress has been uneven.

Data from the Institute on Disability at the University of New Hampshire reveals that 343,483 people with disabilities joined the American workforce in 2016. But two years later, only 29,893 people with disabilities entered the workforce.

Strong transitional school-to-work programs and state policies that support equitable job training and development and workplace hiring practices are key, according to an analysis by RespectAbility. 

“Persistence and accountability are crucial to close the gap in labor force participation rates between people with and without disabilities,” RespectAbility President Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi said in a news release. “Positive impact requires continued focus and attention by the states.”

Nadine Kuziemkowski, vocational program manager at United Disabilities Services, headquartered in Lancaster County, said she’s seen employers become more open in her 23 years there when it comes to nonvisible handicaps, such as autism. There’s a greater effort to accommodate employees with visible disabilities as well, she said. That could include a more accessible desk for someone using a wheelchair, for example.

“Overall, employers are more accepting,” she said.

There are resources to help, such as job coaches and the Office of Vocational Rehabilitation, Kuziemkowski said. UDS’ vocational program assists people with a wide range of disabilities. “We do everything under the sun,” she said.

There’s always a need for more progress when it comes to getting people with handicaps in the workforce, but Kuziemkowski said she found that employers “really want to work with you.”

Individuals with disabilities don’t feel they’re shut out, she said. “If they want to work, we can get them a job.” 

The key is finding a niche, Kuziemkowski said. “You don’t have to have a disability for that.”

There’s also an advantage to hiring disabled workers — they tend to keep their jobs.

Kaite Weaver, talent acquisition coordinator with Willow Valley Communities outside Lancaster, said the senior living campus teams up with several agencies, including UDS, to add people with disabilities to its workforce. That increases the overall talent pool, she said, and gives everyone a morale boost. Weaver said the availability of job coaching really helps.

Many of the employees with handicaps work in culinary services at Willow Valley, and there are numerous types of jobs in that area.  Willow Valley’s culinary hiring and retention specialist, Michelle Leamy, said the addition of disabled team members over the years has been a very positive experience.

Keith Montague, a client of UDS’ vocational program, has been working at McCombs Supply Co. Inc. in Lancaster for years.

“It’s been wonderful,” he said of his full-time packing and shipping job. “They’ve been very helpful with me. I feel very privileged.”

Montague advised other people with disabilities seeking employment to not give up, to “just keep moving forward.”

Justin Manners runs Grocery Outlet in East Hempfield Township, Lancaster County, with his wife, Ellie. The business sells name-brand groceries, general merchandise, health and beauty products, and fresh meat and produce.

He said one of the first employees hired when the business opened last year came through the UDS program. The couple continues to work with the agency. Their background was through Home Depot, Manner said, which is committed to employing people with disabilities.

“We gained that culture from them,” he said, “and incorporated that in how we do business.”

Websites: the next task in the path to ADA compliance

Thirty years after the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed in congress, ensuring that a building is ADA compliant has become a fact of life for business owners.

Complying with the ADA for a building’s public spaces means that businesses ensure that entrances, parking area, restrooms and any other parts of a building that could act as a barrier to entry for someone with a disability are built in a way that follows the rules set out by the 1990 act and its subsequent amendments.

While ADA compliance in relation to buildings has become the norm, attorneys are finding that businesses are putting much less attention into making their websites ADA compliant—something that Lancaster-based law firm Barley Snyder said has resulted in a significant increase in lawsuits.

Websites are just as susceptible to a lawsuit as an entrance to a business without a ramp for a wheelchair-bound customer. A site can be coded in a manner that confuses audiation software that reads the elements of a site to a blind user or has elements that make it difficult for someone to zoom in on a page.

Matthew Hennesy, a partner and commercial, intellectual property and construction litigation attorney at Barley Snyder, said that in recent months he has seen more businesses come under fire for having non-ADA compliant websites.

“Plaintiff attorneys are bringing suits to sites that don’t apply with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines,” Hennesy said. “What we are seeing now is significantly higher than what we saw a year ago.”

Known as WCAG, the guidelines are a set of recommendations to web creators on how to improve their site’s accessibility for people with disabilities.

The ADA was last amended in 2010 and does not yet spell out what an organization needs to do in order to have a compliant website. However, the law notes that it can be applied to any entity that is a public accommodation, something generally reserved for restaurants, retail and other forms of commercial businesses.

Hennesy and another partner at the firm wrote to his clients in an alert earlier this year that some courts have ruled that websites count as public accommodations and can be sued for failing to maintain accessible websites. The country’s courts have been split on what makes a website a public accommodation and if a business without a physical storefront applies.

“There is a lack of clarity and that’s why it’s being hashed out in lawsuits which is a stressful and time consuming thing for a business,” he said.

While there is currently no law that states in what ways a business has to change their website to be ADA compliant, many federal courts, including the Western District of Pennsylvania, have ordered entities to follow the rules set in the WCAG.

Lancaster-based digital marketing and web design firm Quantum Dynamix saw the first wave of ADA compliance lawsuits for websites in 2017, said Crag Kazda, vice president of operations at Quantum.

“If you are providing services that are digitally centric on your websites and through apps and those audiences can’t access them, you’re essentially discriminating against those audiences,” Kazda said.

Precautions to take toward ADA compliance include maintaining a ratio of color contrast between a site’s text and its background to make it as readable as possible and carefully placing videos, pop ups and rapidly moving content in a way that doesn’t make the site unusable for users zooming in on the content.

While Quantum has been cognizant of WCAG and the dangers of failing to keep up compliance on its sites, Kazda said that the industry was initially slow to make broad changes in the space because it was at this time that the European Union introduced its General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

GDPR is a set of guidelines in EU law meant to protect the privacy of residents of the EU. For websites with exposure to EU markets, businesses had to reevaluate how they collected, sued and manipulated visitor data.

“GDPR became a part of the conversation around the globe and the EU put strong teeth on it,” Kazda said. “Because it was clearer and more forceful, people stated to take it more seriously on a national level.”

Clients at Quantum have since shown more interest in compliance, most likely due to the increasingly common lawsuits, which Hennesy said continues to grow at Barley Snyder.

Keeping up with all of the regulations in the WCAG has given firms like Quantum a heavier work load and could put them out of reach for smaller businesses. Kazda added that Quantum has seen signifantly more request for proposals related to ADA compliance, but he believes people are still asleep at the wheel.

“There are still large swaths of people that think this is a nice conversation to have but they might not see it as a necessity,” he said.

For businesses trying to navigate ADA compliance on their websites, Kazda recommends checking accessibility on a regular basis and putting an accessibility statement at the foot of the site.

WCAG checkers are also available online that will run through a webpage and test for compliance.