The Woes of Working Women

By:  Gail Collins
The Woes of Working Women

Today, let’s take a look at the Little Bill That Couldn’t.

Say hello to the Pregnancy Workers Fairness Act. It’s sort of shy, but if you look over there behind the ottoman, you may see it peeking out.

The bill would require employers to make “reasonable accommodations” for workers who become pregnant. You may be stunned to hear that this does not always happen now in the American workplace. Consider Heather Myers, a floor worker in the infant department at a Walmart in Kansas whose obstetrician told her to drink liquids. She was then fired for bringing a water bottle to work.

This week, the Supreme Court heard the case of Peggy Young, a United Parcel Service driver who was put on an unpaid disability leave after her doctor told her she should avoid lifting bundles that weighed more than 20 pounds. That was not much of a problem, since Peggy mainly spent her days delivering envelopes. And we know that UPS had the capacity to make reasonable accommodations because it has changed its policy and now makes ... reasonable accommodations.

Young’s case is getting support from both sides of the great, gaping abortion divide. On the day of her hearing, everybody was united behind working women who wanted to have children.

“I think we’re always looking for common ground, and when we can agree — it’s magic,” said Marjorie Dannenfelser of the anti-abortion Susan B. Anthony List.

(Hear that, little bill? Come on out. Everybody’s on your side. We’ll take a selfie!)

This high-minded rapprochement, alas, has not made its way into the halls of Congress. Thirty-three senators have signed onto the Pregnancy Workers Fairness Act, and 142 members of the House. They’re all Democrats.

“This bill has a lot of support, but it’s not yet bipartisan. That’s the problem,” said Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, the lead sponsor in the Senate.

For sure, given that the next session of Congress is going to be entirely run by Republicans.

The lead House sponsor, Jerrold Nadler of New York, says he’s hoping some of the anti-abortion groups who have signed onto Peggy Young’s case will start pressing their congressional allies to come around on a bill that would solve the Peggy Young problem. But, so far, there doesn’t seem to be much progress.

The Susan B. Anthony List hasn’t taken a position on the matter. “We have one bill and that’s our priority and that’s kind of the way it works,” said Dannenfelser. This would be the ban on abortions beyond the first 20 weeks of a pregnancy.

Nadler, listing what progress there has been, mentioned getting the bill included as “part of the Democratic women’s agenda — although it wasn’t mentioned all the time. To my annoyance.”

O.K., not looking good for the Pregnant Workers. Damned bill’s crawled under the couch.

Emily Martin, vice president of the National Women’s Law Center, has been lobbying for the bill, and she says she’s had meetings with Republican lawmakers that were “very positive,” in a no-action kind of way. “It’s been hard to get somebody to take the leap to be the first Republican,” she said.

This is the way politics goes. Nobody’s making you do it, so you don’t. Anyway, businesses probably wouldn’t like it. (The U.S. Women’s Chamber of Commerce is listed as a supporter. This is not to be confused with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which hasn’t taken a position. “You’ll find that on the majority of issues, we’re on the opposite side of the table,” said Margot Dorfman, who leads the women’s group.)

What we have here is a bill that’s been kicking around for more than a year, during which time a multitude of Democrats have signed on without making any superhuman efforts to win over their Republican colleagues. The Republicans, who have been complaining mightily about being branded anti-women during the election season, have been making quiet murmurs of agreement but don’t want to go out of their way to promote something the Democrats started.

And here we are, in a country where more than two-thirds of mothers work, most of them full time. We have interesting debates about whether young mothers should opt out of the workplace, ignoring that most of them have no option whatsoever on the opting question.

Our institutions cheerfully refuse to restructure themselves to reflect the fact that most families do not contain a non-working parent. Congress has been debating early education programs for more than 40 years and it has hardly made a dent. A great many of our employers don’t bother to make jobs more family-friendly; they don’t even bother to make modest arrangements to accommodate their pregnant workers. Everybody thinks this is extremely unfortunate, but almost nobody does anything about it because there is not a lot of political or financial reward for siding with working mothers.

O.K., rant is over. Sorry, I think I scared the little bill.