Protecting the Rights of Pregnant Women

(EDITOR'S NOTE: This blog originally appeared on Momsrising.org as part of the #HERvotes blog carnival.)

It’s October 20, 2009. My lab results have just confirmed the news that my husband and I have been eagerly waiting to hear. I am pregnant. I am excited. I am overjoyed. I am nervous. I am anxious. My mind and body are gearing up to experience a plethora of emotions and sensations that will last for nine months and beyond. The first trimester goes without incident. We have just started announcing the news to family and friends. And then unexpectedly, four months into my pregnancy, I experience bleeding. Memories of a past miscarriage take over the joyous experience. I am fearful. My ob-gyn advises reducing my workload and taking it easy till things settle back into rhythm. I call my workplace and without much ado, my supervisor and I settle on a work-from-home arrangement till all is well.

Fortunately, all did go well and I gave birth to a healthy baby boy in July 2010. As I recovered from childbirth and later took time off to bond with my child, my union contract guaranteed that I wouldn’t lose pay or my family health coverage for the duration of my leave.

In 2009, Victoria Guillen, a dishwasher at the Grand Hyatt hotel in San Francisco, was pregnant too. Victoria had a difficult, high-risk pregnancy, was advised by her doctor to take a long leave of absence. However, unlike my experience, Victoria had to struggle with her employers for her rights. Her managers wanted her to return to work three days after her due date or not come back at all. Victoria couldn’t return to work three days after her c-section. She lost her job. She fought back with the support of her union UNITE HERE Local 2. After months of petitioning, Hyatt gave in and Victoria was allowed to return to her job. (Read Victoria’s story in her own words).

Pregnancy can be the most joyful and the most vulnerable time of a woman’s life. And the risk of complications during pregnancy or childbirth is a very real one. Statistics show that approximately 13 percent of women will have a complication from pregnancy requiring them to be hospitalized before delivery. 20 percent of pregnant women spend a minimum of one week on bed rest during the course of their pregnancy.

Working women make up nearly half of the American workforce. Three quarters of women in today’s workforce will become pregnant while employed. Nearly 30 percent of employed women in the United States take prenatal leave. But for too many women workers, pregnancy leave is simply not affordable. And for low-wage workers like Victoria, it is especially hard.

It is, therefore, important that we have workplace standards that safeguard not only the physical well-being of an expectant/new mother and her child, but also her economic security during the pregnancy and after childbirth. The benefits of pregnancy leave to the health of mothers and their babies are well-documented. Women need access to affordable pregnancy leave so that they can take time off before and after birth without losing pay and benefits.

In California, we are fortunate to have a State Disability Insurance (SDI) program that provides pregnant women and new mothers partial wage replacement while on disability and bonding leave. SDI includes the Paid Family Leave program which researchers recently found benefits both workers and employers.

The California Work & Family Coalition is advocating for an important legislation to protect the health of working mothers and their babies. Existing state law does not require that health insurance coverage be continued for women on pregnancy leave. This puts many pregnant women and new mothers at risk of losing their health coverage at the time they need it most. SB 299 will fix this problem. Learn more about this campaign.

For legal advice about pregnancy leave in California, please call Legal Aid Society-Employment Law Center: (800) 880-8047 or Equal Rights Advocates: (800) 839-4372.