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Federal legislation increases accommodations for pregnant workers at UNC

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Dr. Sarah Verbiest, the Executive Director of the UNC Collaborative for Maternal and Infant Health, poses in front of a lactation center located inside of the UNC School of Social Work on Friday, July 7, 2023. 

The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act took effect in June, outlining new accommodations for pregnant employees, including those at UNC.

Signed into law by President Joe Biden in December 2022, the PWFA requires employers to provide “reasonable accommodations” for workers with known limitations related to pregnancy, childbirth and other medical conditions.

Examples of reasonable accommodations include the ability to sit or drink water, additional break time to use the bathroom and time off to recover from childbirth.

“There’s still a lot of discrimination against people who are pregnant and new parents,” Sarah Verbiest, the director of the Jordan Institute for Families in the UNC School of Social Work, said. “That’s why I think this legislation is really important in showing support and giving rights to those folks.”

The PWFA will only require employers to provide accommodations if it does not cause them “undue hardship,” defined as any action requiring significant difficulty and expense to operations.

While the PWFA includes new accommodations for workers affected by pregnancy, childbirth or related medical conditions, it cannot replace more protective existing federal, state or local laws.

Over 30 cities and states in the U.S. have existing legislation that provides accommodations for pregnant workers, including North Carolina.

In February of 2020, Verbiest was invited to Washington, D.C., to educate legislators about the PWFA. She said many people were unaware of the lack of accommodations for pregnant workers in the workforce.

“We definitely found that a lot of the folks we spoke with just didn’t realize that some of the other pieces of legislation didn’t offer this protection,” she said.

In North Carolina, Gov. Roy Cooper signed Executive Order No. 82 in December 2018, which extended workplace protections and modifications to pregnant state agency workers. 

As a state university, pregnant workers of UNC — including student workers — were protected under this order.

Full- and part-time employees of the University, student employees and both permanent and temporary workers can visit the accommodation request section of the Equal Opportunity and Compliance Office’s website to request additional pregnancy accommodations.

According to an email statement, the office is working to streamline the request process in preparation to comply with the PWFA.

The PWFA also expands on the Providing Urgent Maternal Protections for Nursing Mothers Act, which was also signed into law in 2022 by Biden. The PUMP Act outlined the right of employees to reasonable break time and a private space to nurse and pump breast milk at work.

The PUMP Act itself is an expansion of a 2010 law under the Affordable Care Act, which provided these rights to hourly employees and extends these rights to salaried employees.

The new legislation also allows workers to use legal action against their employer if their requested accommodations are not being met.

“Now, this act protects all workers whether they are salaried or hourly, which is really big because most people just assume that salaried employees have access and are able to find a space or get paid break time to be able to (nurse),” Catherine Sullivan, the director of the Carolina Global Breastfeeding Institute and an assistant professor in the Department of Maternal and Child Health, said.

On UNC’s campus, there are over 20 lactation rooms available for nursing employees and students, including in the Carolina Union, Student Stores and Gillings School of Global Public Health. These rooms cannot be co-located with a restroom, and must be close to a water source for accessible cleaning of pump parts and free of public intrusion.

In North Carolina and the U.S. as a whole, the goals for exclusive breastfeeding at three months and six months are not being met, Sullivan said. 

She also said legislation that enables new parents to continue breastfeeding increases the health benefits to both the birthing person and the infant, as well as decreasing risks of maternal morbidity and future health conditions.

Verbiest said that these laws help codify support for pregnant employees.

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“It’s really exciting that it did pass,” she said. “This will really help a lot of pregnant folks and new parents be able to return to work, be able to take care of their families and also be able to stay employed.”

@ashnqm

@dailytarheel | university@dailytarheel.com


Ashley Quincin

Ashley Quincin is a 2023-24 assistant university desk editor at The Daily Tar Heel. She has previously served as a university staff writer. Ashley is a senior pursuing a degree in English and comparative literature, with a double minor in media and journalism and composition, rhetoric and digital literacy.