Divided Over Abortion, but Joining Forces for Women’s Workplace Rights

When South Carolina passed a law last year to provide pregnant workers and new mothers with more protections in the workplace, it was driven by an unlikely alliance: supporters of abortion rights working alongside religious groups that oppose them.

“We were all on the same page pragmatically,” said Ashley Crary Lidow, associate director of policy and government relations at the Women’s Rights & Empowerment Network in Columbia, S.C., which supports abortion rights. Palmetto Family Council, a religious advocacy group in Columbia, also said the partnership had “raised some eyebrows” around the Statehouse.

After all, the two groups opposed each other on abortion legislation just the day before the workplace bill hit the Senate floor.

As a series of states have moved to put tighter restrictions on abortion — a polarizing issue at a polarized moment in American politics — another, nascent movement is simmering in the background: Unusual partners are coming together to strengthen workplace safeguards for women.

The new laws help begin to address what advocates on both sides of the abortion divide see as a disconnect. Many of the states that have recently enacted more restrictive abortion laws, they say, have some of the weakest support systems for pregnant women and new mothers in the workplace.

“In states that do not have strong legal protections for pregnant workers, which include almost all of the South, we hear from women all the time experiencing discrimination on the job or forced to risk their health at work,” said Dina Bakst, a co-founder and co-president of A Better Balance, an advocacy group based in New York that is supportive of abortion rights.

Like South Carolina, Kentucky recently established laws that require many employers to provide reasonable accommodations for pregnant workers and new mothers.

The new rules — which have been passed in more than two dozen states — strengthen existing requirements under federal law by making employer responsibilities more explicit. The state laws are similar, and give examples of the kinds of accommodations that must be provided, including giving a pregnant worker more frequent bathroom breaks or a lighter-duty position. Even so, the laws say companies do not have to make allowances if they would impose an undue hardship on the business.

State Senator Alice Forgy Kerr, a Republican who introduced Kentucky’s accommodations bill, said she thought part of the challenge in passing protection rules was the underrepresentation of women in the Legislature. Just four of the 38 state senators are women.

“The hardest sell on these bills, I have to say, are to men,” said Senator Kerr, who also voted for a so-called fetal heartbeat bill that would ban abortions as early as six weeks into a pregnancy, and that a federal judge temporarily blocked in March.

“And what I stressed to them, these pro-life legislators, is that this is a pro-life measure,” she said. “We want our women to have safe pregnancies so they can have healthy babies.”

Inside the Kentucky Senate chamber just before lawmakers voted on the workplace bill, the tension was plain to see. State Senator Dan Seum, a Republican, ultimately voted for it, but only after saying he “can always tell when those on the committee have never owned and operated a business.”

Senator Kerr replied, “It’s also always easy to tell who on these committees have never been pregnant.”

The bill garnered support in large part because of the united front created by groups with typically diverging views. Kate Miller, advocacy director at the American Civil Liberties Union in Kentucky, said her organization isn’t always popular around the State Capitol. But an alliance with the Catholic Conference of Kentucky helped raise the bill’s profile, which in turn attracted attention from business groups like the Louisville Chamber of Commerce.

“They were so invested on this issue,” Ms. Miller said of the church. “That made a really big difference.”

After getting the law passed in South Carolina despite pushback from business interests, the advocates there have continued to work together, most recently on legislation that would give workers the explicit right to break time for pumping breast milk in all workplaces, regardless of the business’s size.

Twenty-seven states and five localities now have so-called reasonable accommodation laws, according to Elizabeth Gedmark, director of A Better Balance’s Southern office, and more progress is expected in 2020.

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A federal version of the state accommodation laws — the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act — was reintroduced in the House in May with sponsors from both parties. But it has been introduced in every congressional session since 2012, and hasn’t yet gained traction.

While some states have had success with accommodation laws, there has been less progress on enhancing leave policies.

Theresa Gonzales, an admissions representative at South College in Nashville, could have avoided two months of stress if Tennessee or the federal government had a family leave law.

Ms. Gonzales, the sole breadwinner for her family, gave birth to a daughter on Dec. 10. She was fired seven days later.

She was devastated but not surprised: She hadn’t yet worked a full year in her job, which is required to qualify for federally mandated unpaid leave. The college, she heard from co-workers, would fire women and potentially rehire them after they gave birth.

After visiting campus with her newborn — to show just how serious she was about returning — Ms. Gonzales started to doubt she would be taken back, and in early February, she was told that she would not be rehired, she said. Less than two weeks later, the school reconsidered, but only after she had sent human resources an email that said she believed her firing was discriminatory and violated federal law.

Even then, Ms. Gonzales said, she has paid a price. Her pay, for the same position, was cut 5 percent, and she must clock out to pump milk in a supply closet, even though she has an office and previously could take paid breaks.

“It is supposed to be a time of joy,” said Ms. Gonzales, 30. “Instead, my experience as a first-time mother in the American work force left me traumatized.”

South College said that it relied heavily on working mothers and that dozens had enjoyed childbirth-related leaves.

“The institution believes that the actions of Ms. Gonzalez evidence success in these endeavors, as she voluntarily returned to work at South College and is a current employee today,” the school said in a statement.

The federal Family Medical Leave Act, which requires some employers to provide workers with up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave if they have worked for a full year, doesn’t cover an estimated 40 percent of workers like Ms. Gonzales. (Besides the work requirement, the law covers only employers with more than 50 employees.)

A paid leave bill was introduced in Tennessee in February — just as Ms. Gonzales was trying to get her job back — but it stalled in a House subcommittee.

Several states have tried to fill in the gaps, however. Connecticut will soon become the seventh state, in addition to the District of Columbia, to offer a paid leave program. Federal efforts on paid leave are continuing, but no one idea has gained substantial bipartisan support yet.

An analysis by the National Partnership for Women & Families in September assigned each state a letter grade based on its leave policies. Only 12 states received A or B grades, and states with the most restrictive abortion laws largely received grades of D or F.

“On the policy level, there is a real story to states that are taking away abortion care but that are doing nothing for families who are having children,” said Sarah Fleisch Fink, director of workplace policy at the National Partnership for Women & Families, which supports abortion rights. “There is a disconnect.”

Conservative groups have acknowledged that issues like paid leave are trickier to work out but need to be addressed.

“If we are pro-life, we need to make sure we are also pro-life after birth,” said Joshua Putnam, president of Palmetto Family. “And I think you are starting to see some of that happening.”

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