Quinn signs legislation to protect pregnant women in workplace

By Alex Swanson

Gov. Pat Quinn signed legislation to protect pregnant women against discrimination in the workplace on Women’s Equality Day, the 94th anniversary of women gaining the right to vote. 

The law amends the Illinois Human Rights Act with respect to employment and stipulates that upon a request from a pregnant woman, including any necessary documentation such as a doctor’s note, an employer will make reasonable accommodations for the employee’s well-being.

Reasonable accommodations could include breaks for pregnant workers from heavy lifting, access to more places to sit, more frequent bathroom breaks and a modified work schedule. After childbirth, women are entitled to more time to recover and a separate area for breast-feeding at their place of employment.

It is now considered a civil rights violation if an employer refuses to provide reasonable accommodations. Additionally, the law prohibits employers from denying employment opportunities or benefits to pregnant women who are otherwise the strongest candidate to be hired or promoted.

However, if the employer argues that a requested accommodation is not reasonable and will cause an undue hardship on the business, the employer may not have to provide the accommodation. 

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State Rep. Mary Flowers, D-31, and State Sen. Toi Hutchinson, D-40, sponsored the bill. Flowers first introduced the bill in Dec. 2012, and it was signed on Aug. 26. 

“Before this legislation took effect, discrimination against pregnant workers had dire consequences for many families,” said Elizabeth Gedmark, a staff attorney and director of the southern office at A Better Balance. The organization promotes equality at all income levels so men and women may care for their families without fearing job losses. 

“There have been a lot of employers, really nationwide, that have declined these accommodations. And then pregnant women are forced on unpaid leave, or fired altogether,” Gedmark said. “They often lose their health benefits, and the economic consequences are really disastrous for these families.”

She also remarked that this kind of discrimination disproportionately affects low income workers and workers with high physical demands in their job.

Gedmark said that many of these issues have already been brought up in court and are oftentimes unfairly settled in favor of the employer. “The law will work to correct the unfair findings in favor of the pregnant workers,” Gedmark said. 

“You hear all of these horror stories,” Flowers said. “Women who were pregnant, who lost their unborn child … who lost their jobs … destroyed their family by losing their job and losing their income because an employer would not make a reasonable accommodation.”

Flowers said that these kinds of actions are discrimination, as there is only one group of people who have the ability to get pregnant. 

Director of Equal Opportunity Policy at Women Employed, Melissa Josephs commented that the law is only supporting people who want to keep working, and that could be beneficial to the worker, as well as the employer and the economy. 

“These are workers who want to keep working, so instead of the employer having to spend money to replace or retrain workers, here’s a worker who wants to keep working and just needs an adjustment,” Josephs said. 

The bill was well supported on a bipartisan basis in both the state’s Senate and House of Representatives. The final text of House Bill 8 passed both houses unanimously.

Josephs felt that, after some back and forth, most legislators knew it would seem ridiculous not to support this legislation in its final form.

“It was almost a joke, the legislators would say, ‘You’re actually going to come out against this? Who’s going to be against this?’ Because, it is so reasonable,” Josephs said. 

Flowers believes that this law will be able to increase the standard of the work for pregnant employees across Illinois.  

“No one should have to make the choice of not having their baby or having a miscarriage because of their job, because of their livelihood,” Flowers said. “A lot of women will be able to maintain their families, maintain their livelihood and be respected and protected under this law.”

Alex can be reached at [email protected]