Last week, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker signed a bill extending new legal protections to pregnant workers in the state. The bipartisan bill, which comes into effect on April 1, 2018, requires employers to provide “reasonable accommodations” to expectant and new mothers in the workplace, including less strenuous workloads, flexible scheduling, paid or unpaid leave, and private space to nurse.
At SHRM, Christopher B. Kaczmarek and Shannon M. Berube, attorneys with Littler in Boston, provide a detailed overview of what the new law will require of employers:
First, the act requires employers to reasonably accommodate all pregnant employees, just as they are required to reasonably accommodate employees with disabilities. … Second, the act requires employers to accommodate employees with a need to express breast milk. … The act goes beyond this limited obligation under federal law and requires an employer to engage in the interactive process to find a reasonable accommodation based on the individual needs of an employee.
The reasonable accommodation obligation could result in employers providing longer or more frequent break times or other accommodations not specifically required under federal law. …
The act requires that the employer and employee or prospective employee “engage in a timely, good faith and interactive process to determine an effective, reasonable accommodation to enable the employee or prospective employee to perform the essential functions of the employee’s job or the position to which the prospective employee has applied.”
Employers are not required to provide accommodations“requiring significant difficulty or expense,” or in other words those that would impose undue hardship on the employer, Kaczmarek and Berube note.
The bill was enthusiastically endorsed by advocacy groups concerned with women and mothers in the workplace, but at least one major employer group in the state also expressed support, the Boston Globe’s Katie Johnston pointed out when the bill went to Baker’s desk:
The bill went through several iterations as business groups worked to address employers’ concerns, and in the end, Associated Industries of Massachusetts, one of the most powerful such organizations in the state, supported it.
“It’s a bill that really balances the needs of employees to make arrangements so that they can stay on the job through a pregnancy and at the same time creates a pathway for employers, as well, to create reasonable accommodations,” said spokesman Christopher Geehern. “A process by which a company is able to hold on to a valued employee really works to everybody’s benefit.”
Massachusetts is proving to be a trendsetter in enacting laws to advance the interests of women in the workplace, such as its move last year to advance gender pay equity in part by banning salary history inquiries. While that legislation attracted a great deal of criticism, the Bay State’s latest move looks much less controversial.