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US employers must accommodate abortions, birth control, agency says

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US employers must accommodate abortions, birth control, agency says
April 15, 2024
Daniel Wiessner - Reuters

By Daniel Wiessner

(Reuters) - U.S. employers' obligation to accommodate workers' pregnancies also extends to abortions and the use of contraception, the U.S. agency that enforces workplace discrimination laws said on Monday.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) unveiled a rule to implement the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, a law that Congress passed with bipartisan support and the backing of major business groups in 2022.

The law requires employers to alter job duties or give time off to workers with "limitations related to ... pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions."

The commission's rule, which was proposed last year, has drawn criticism from some Republicans and religious groups who say the law's protections should not extend to workers who choose to have abortions or take birth control, or that if it does, religious employers should be eligible for an exemption.

A group of Republicans in Congress suggested in comments to the EEOC that the lack of a religious exemption could form the basis of a legal challenge to the rule.

Rep. Virginia Foxx, a Republican from North Carolina, said on Monday the EEOC exceeded its authority by adopting the rule.

"The term ‘abortion’ is not once mentioned in the law," Foxx said in a statement. "Instead of following congressional intent, the Biden administration is using the regulatory process to advance radical policy goals."

The EEOC's five members are appointed by the president, but the agency functions independently from the White House.

The rule will be formally published on Friday and will take effect 60 days later.

The 2022 law requires U.S. employers with 15 or more employees to provide reasonable accommodations to pregnant workers. Previously, federal law only required those accommodations if employers also gave them to employees with injuries or medical conditions.

The EEOC rule's list of accommodations that workers may seek includes limits on heavy lifting, part-time work schedules, additional breaks to drink water and use restrooms, modified equipment and uniforms, seating, remote work, and paid or unpaid leave.

Workers may also ask to be relieved of certain essential functions of their jobs, as long as they can resume performing them after a pregnancy, the EEOC said.

Business groups and other critics of the rule have said that providing accommodations such as seating and additional breaks sounds simple, but can be impractical for many jobs and workplaces.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other groups told the EEOC last year that whether specific accommodations are appropriate should be considered on a case-by-case basis. And once temporary accommodations are granted to pregnant workers, employers should be permitted to periodically request documentation showing that they are still necessary, the groups said.

Many worker advocacy groups supported the regulations. A Better Balance, which advocates for work-life balance measures, said the broad EEOC rule would remove various obstacles to women staying in the workforce when they are pregnant and after they give birth.

"Today with these final rules, we have achieved a huge step forward for women’s economic security, maternal health, and the economy as a whole," the group's co-president, Dina Bakst, said in a statement.

In February, a Texas federal judge agreed with the Republican-led state that the pregnancy bias law was invalid because it was included in a $1.7 trillion government funding bill that was not properly passed.

The judge blocked the EEOC from enforcing the rule against the state in its role as an employer. The commission in a March filing said it would comply with the ruling and did not indicate whether it would appeal.

(Reporting by Daniel Wiessner in Albany, New York, Editing by Alexia Garamfalvi and Josie Kao)

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