Legislation that would give pregnant workers more job protections has all the ingredients for success in a narrowly divided Congress — robust bipartisan support, momentum in both chambers, backing from business and unions — except the most crucial one: a plan to pass it before Democrats’ time is up.
Senate leadership has thus far declined to bring the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act — which has already passed the House — to the floor, imperiling the legislation, infuriating its supporters and illustrating just how much Democrats must juggle in their waning hours of controlling the House, Senate and White House.
Advocates warn that if Congress doesn’t enact the bill by the end of the year, opposition from a few key House Republicans — including the top Republican on the House Education and Labor Committee, Virginia Foxx (N.C.) — over a lack of religious exemptions means the legislation will likely never get passed. The GOP is slated to take over the House in January, at which point enactment would be near-impossible.
“The clock is ticking,” Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) said. This “is a bipartisan bill that’s pro-mothers, pro-healthy pregnancies, and pro-workers” and “already passed the House with overwhelming bipartisan support. Let’s get it through the Senate by the end of the year.”
Cassidy has met with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer about the legislation multiple times, a person familiar with the conversations said — and even read him a list of its Republican supporters name-by-name.
The bill would require employers to provide pregnant workers with so-called reasonable accommodations in the same vein as those provided to disabled workers, like more frequent bathroom breaks, the ability to carry a water bottle and the option to sit during a shift.
Right now, the legal burden for pregnant workers is hefty enough that two-thirds lose their discrimination cases in court, according to A Better Balance, a group advocating for the legislation. Thirty states — most recently, Tennessee — have already passed their own laws to address the issue.
It’s “an overwhelmingly bipartisan solution” that “has the support of faith organizations, maternal health groups, business associations, labor unions, and women’s and civil rights organizations,” said Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), co-chair of the Democratic Women’s Caucus, who led 130 colleagues in sending a letter to Schumer earlier this month urging him to bring it to the Senate floor. “It’s a no-brainer. So what is the hold up?”
Supporters have a Plan B if the bill can’t get a standalone vote in the Senate: adding it to any year-end omnibus legislation. But that route is far from assured either.
Schumer had lined up the bill for expedited consideration on the floor before POLITICO broke the news that the Supreme Court would overturn Roe v. Wade. Democrats then decided to sideline it, a Senate committee aide said, out of a desire to avoid the perception that it was the party’s response to the news.
Since then, Schumer has repeatedly insisted on a time agreement with Republicans before he brings the bill to the floor, Senate committee aides said. So far, continued opposition from a handful of Senate Republicans, including Rand Paul (Ky.), has made that nearly impossible.
Schumer’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
The bill has drawn support from groups as diverse as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the ACLU and U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Those endorsements helped it pass the House by a wide margin in May 2021, when lawmakers advanced it 315-101. Ninety-nine Republicans voted in favor; 101 voted against.
Frustration with Schumer is boiling over among its top proponents.
“We got [Schumer] a bipartisan civil rights bill with over 60 votes to pass on the Senate floor over six months ago,” said Dina Bakst, president of A Better Balance, which has been pressuring Schumer to bring the bill to the floor. “If he won’t make floor time for PWFA and it dies, millions of pregnant women and new moms in this country will suffer devastating maternal health and economic consequences because of his inaction for years to come.”
Business groups, who helped draft the legislation, say it would help employers steer clear of pregnancy-related lawsuits and bolster the economy by boosting women’s labor force participation.
“The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act not only helps pregnant workers remain healthy and in the labor force, but also removes legal ambiguities that have led to litigation,” said Glenn Spencer, senior vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Employment Policy Division.
A Better Balance has bombarded Schumer with letters from celebrities, advocacy groups and New York-based faith leaders. The group has spent serious cash on ads, including a recent full-page ad in The New York Times, and is planning a rally on the Hill for when lawmakers return after Thanksgiving.
The Chamber of Commerce has also been amping up the pressure, highlighting the bill in a letter to lawmakers earlier this month outlining its priorities for the lame-duck session.
Paul opposes the bill for several reasons, spokesperson Kelsey Cooper said, including its lack of religious exemptions.
“The bill could force religious employers to provide accommodations that arise from an abortion, which could violate the free exercise of their religious beliefs,” Cooper said.
Unless Paul’s opposition can be overcome, the bill’s backers have one option: incorporating it into a year-end spending package that Congress must pass before it breaks for Christmas. Committee aides say this is the most likely path forward — and Senate Democrats say plans to do so are in motion.
“We’re working to get it in the final package,” Senate HELP Chair Patty Murray (D-Wash.) said. “There’s some stuff going on right now with the Republican caucus; we’re waiting for them to get things settled so we can decide the final things.”
Yet here, too, Foxx and Paul’s opposition presents roadblocks. Foxx, who is seeking a waiver to chair the House Education and Labor Committee next session, has successfully blockaded the bill’s inclusion in previous packages, committee aides said.
Foxx declined to say if she planned to do so again. But she still “cannot support a bill that fails to protect religious organizations from being forced to make employment decisions that conflict with their faith,” she said.
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