Pregnant workers in Massachusetts will soon benefit from broader protection against discrimination under the recently enacted Massachusetts Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (“MPWFA”). This new law, which applies to all employers with six or more employees, updates and expands upon existing state anti-discrimination statutes and makes it an unlawful practice to discriminate against a pregnant employee or an employee affected by a condition related to pregnancy. The most notable change is that employers will now be required to provide reasonable accommodations for pregnancy and related conditions, including lactation and the need to express breast milk, unless the employer can prove that doing so would pose an undue hardship on its business.
The MPWFA requires the employer to work with the requesting employee to engage in a timely, good faith interactive process to establish effective reasonable accommodations. Some of the “reasonable accommodations” suggested by the MPWFA include, but are not limited to: more frequent or longer unpaid breaks; time off to recover from childbirth with or without pay; acquisition or modification of equipment or seating; temporary transfer to a less strenuous or hazardous position; job restructuring; light duty; private non-bathroom space for expressing breast milk; assistance with manual labor; and/or modified work schedules.
Employers may ask the requesting employee to provide necessary documentation from appropriate health care professionals regarding the need for a reasonable accommodation. Documentation may not be required, however, for the following accommodations: more frequent restroom, food, and water breaks; seating modifications; limits on lifting over 20 pounds; and private non-bathroom space for expressing breast milk.
An accommodation request may be denied only when providing it would impose an undue hardship on the employer’s business. As is the case under existing disability discrimination laws, this exception will likely be very narrowly interpreted, so that any assertion of undue hardship in denying an accommodation request should be carefully considered and well documented.
The MPWFA takes effect on April 1, 2018. Beginning with that date, employers will be required to notify all new employees of their rights pursuant to the MPWFA at the time of hire. This notice can be incorporated into an existing employee handbook or may be issued as a separate policy statement. Prior to April 1, employers should take the following actions to ensure that they are fully compliant on or before that date:
- notify existing employees of their rights pursuant to the MPWFA;
- designate a private non-bathroom space for employees to use for expressing breast milk;
- update any company handbooks or policies relating to pregnancy or pregnancy-related conditions to incorporate MPWFA requirements, including clear guidelines on the process for requesting a reasonable accommodation;
- train human resources and other management personnel on the proper implementation and management of MPWFA requirements; and
- designate a “point person” to handle any MPWFA related issues, including managing the reasonable accommodation process.
While the MPWFA is specific to employers operating in Massachusetts, the expansion of protections for pregnancy related conditions is a trend that bears watching for businesses nationwide. Currently, twenty-two other states and the District of Columbia have enacted similar legislation to prevent pregnancy-based discrimination and require employers to provide reasonable accommodations in the workplace.