Noting that “reasonable accommodations for pregnant women in the workplace can go a long way to promoting healthy pregnancies without producing an undue hardship on employers,” the state of Washington recently enacted new on-the-job protections for pregnant employees.
The law, entitled The Healthy Starts Act (PDF), becomes effective Jan. 1, 2018, and will apply to companies with 15 or more employees—meaning that many small businesses will be affected.
The legislation splits on-the-job accommodations into two levels—those that must be offered by employers, with or without medical verification, and those that must be provided only if medical verification is supplied by the employee.
Among the first-level accommodations—which a business must offer without either authentication by a healthcare professional, or submission of a claim that such adaptations would constitute an undue hardship for the organization—are:
- More numerous, longer, or flexible bathroom breaks.
- The ability to eat or drink during work hours.
- Access to seating or more frequent breaks, if the employee must work in a standing position.
- A limitation against lifting anything over 18 pounds in weight.
The second-level accommodations—which must be offered only if a healthcare professional prescribes them and the company does not assert that it will suffer undue hardship by complying—comprise:
- Job modifications that would offer part-time or modified schedules, reassignment to a vacant position or work-station changes (including buying equipment/devices).
- A short-term transfer to a job function that is less strenuous or hazardous.
- Assistance with manual labor.
- Prescheduled breaks for prenatal visits.
The bill also contains a “catchall provision,” which mandates that employers give “reasonable consideration” to any other pregnancy-related accommodations that an employee might request.
In conforming to the provisions of the act, employers are prohibited from discriminating or retaliating against the pregnant employee. Indeed, the legislation creates a private right for aggrieved employees to act, under which damages and legal fees may be recovered.
The law may be enforced either by the Washington Attorney General or via a private lawsuit.
According to the Society for Human Resource Management, “Washington employers should be particularly careful when faced with a request for accommodation by a pregnant worker, including consulting with counsel before denying such a request."