Pregnant women in Texas deserve fairness

A pregnant woman shouldn’t have to choose between having her baby and keeping her job, between protecting her health and being fired. Yet in Texas, the lack of protections for pregnant workers seems to indicate that our state endorses a family-unfriendly workplace.

In reality, I know that Texans value families, and that’s why I filed legislation this week to create the Pregnant Workers' Fairness Act.

Stories of real-life pregnancy discrimination read like made-for-TV movie scripts. One mother was fired for carrying a water bottle recommended by her doctor to prevent a pregnancy-related bladder infection. A pregnant bus driver was forced to take unpaid leave because her supervisor worried that morning sickness might pose a danger to passengers. These scenarios aren't only real but also perfectly legal under current Texas law.

Over the past decade, pregnancy discrimination claims filed to the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) have been steadily rising. In 2011, women filed 5,797 cases, costing U.S. employers at least $17.2 million in settlements. Dallas and Houston ranked ninth and 10th, respectively, for EEOC districts with the highest number of pregnancy discrimination cases filed in 2013.

My legislation, House Bill 1281, will ensure that pregnant workers are given reasonable accommodations under state law. Under the Pregnant Workers' Fairness Act, it would be an unlawful employment practice to "not make reasonable accommodations to the known limitations related to the pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions of a job applicant or employee … unless [the business] can demonstrate that the accommodation would impose an undue hardship on the operation of [the business]."

The bill will also ensure that employers cannot deny employment opportunities to a pregnant woman or require an employee to take leave under any existing leave law if another reasonable accommodation can be provided.

Pregnancy discrimination impacts nearly every industry, but low-wage workers and women working in areas traditionally dominated by men — such as trucking, policing and emergency services — are hit the hardest.  Due to a lack of protections, these female workers are either forced to take unpaid leave or continue to work without any accommodation. In the case of 30-year-old Reyna Garcia of California, who worked for the grocery chain Albertsons, her employer’s refusal to grant basic requests such as reprieve from heavy lifting caused her to suffer a miscarriage.

More than half of all pregnant women and new mothers in Texas are a part of the labor force and earn income to support their families. That’s why protecting these workers isn’t just a health care issue; it's a smart business strategy. Employers know that it’s more expensive to fire, rehire and retrain than it is to accommodate a current worker. And certainly it’s more expensive to be sued in court than to provide a stool, a bottle of water, a 15-minute break.

While I want to believe that such basic accommodations are available to all working mothers in Texas, some employers have acted unfairly. This act will help ensure that protections are defined so that all Texas employers have solid guidelines for how to lawfully employ pregnant women and new mothers.

The language in HB 1281 is modeled after bills filed in states like West Virginia and Louisiana. There and elsewhere, pregnant worker fairness laws have passed with unanimous or near-unanimous bipartisan support.

Across America, this type of worker protection has been called common sense. Here in Texas, it means even more: common decency.

Eddie Rodriguez

State representative, D-Austin