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A bill to make Kentucky businesses more friendly for pregnant workers and new moms is making its way through the legislature with support from Greater Louisville Inc.

Senate Bill 18, which is sponsored by Sen. Alice Forgy Kerr, R-Fayette County and others, advanced out of the Senate’s judiciary committee Feb. 14 and has now moved to the Rules Committee.

“GLI is actively working with the Kentucky Senate to ensure the bill advances to the floor for passage,” said Iris Wilbur, director of government affairs and public policy for that organization, in an email.

The legislation would require businesses to make reasonable accommodations for employees affected by pregnancy, childbirth or related medical conditions, including breastfeeding and the need to express breast milk.

Accommodations listed in the bill include more or longer breaks, time off to recover from childbirth, acquisition or modification of equipment, appropriate seating, modified work schedule, temporary transfer to a less strenuous or less hazardous position, job restructuring or light duty. Providing a private space — that is not a bathroom — to express breast milk also is included.

Sen. Alice Forgy Kerr, R-Fayette County

Kerr told the judiciary committee that the bill is something that is badly needed to give guidance to employers and to protect moms and babies.

“As things stand right now,” she said, “employers and employees are forced to navigate a complex web of federal law and case law, which leads to confusion and to litigation.”

Furthermore, she said, this legislation is “important for our economy, it’s important for health and it’s important for our society as well.”

Working without the proper accommodations poses a risk of preterm birth, low-birth-weight babies and miscarriages, as well as the anxiety of deciding whether to continue working in unsafe or unhealthy conditions, Kerr said.

Senate Bill 18 “can provide critical support to women who may feel that abortion is their only option,” she said.

However, the bill has received some opposition from the business sector in northern Kentucky, multiple legislators noted, and western Kentucky Sen. Whitney Westerfield indicated that he’d like to see some changes made to make the bill less strict and to clarify the size of business the legislation would apply to.

Wilbur said Monday that because there has been some confusion among legislators with determining if a pregnancy is considered a disability, efforts are being made “to add language to clarify that the pregnant workers’ accommodations language would apply to employers with 15 or more employees.”

The Center for Health Equity, which is part of the Louisville Metro Department of Public Health and Wellness, and the Louisville Metro Board of Health released a Health Impact Assessment of the bill Monday.

The report highlights the fact that Kentucky is fifth in the country for preterm births, and that jobs that require physical labor, such as heavy lifting, bending and standing for lengthy periods, may create a strain on a pregnant worker and her developing child and could lead to increased risk of miscarriage or preterm birth.

It also notes that most of Kentucky’s female workforce doesn’t have an advanced education, so women sometimes find themselves in physically demanding jobs, such as factory work, and positions with relatively low salaries and less flexibility for modification requests. Women of color may face additional burdens related to racial inequalities.

Karen Cost, chair of the Louisville Metro Board of Health, said the bill is sound policy that’s needed to help pregnant workers deliver healthy babies.

“Pregnant workers contribute significant hours to the workforce, participating in the economy and providing for their families,” Cost said in a news release. “Making basic modifications to accommodate a woman’s physical changes during pregnancy can help alleviate health concerns for themselves and their developing child while allowing women to continue to earn an income.”

A couple dozen states, including South Carolina, Nebraska, North Dakota and Utah, have reasonable accommodation laws, Kerr said, but Indiana and Tennessee are not among them yet.

“Right now, we have a rare opportunity to get ahead of our competitors by passing a bill that helps employers and helps a vital growing part of our workforce,” she said.

Testifying in Frankfort, Wilbur called the measure a strong, pro-business bill that will have a positive impact on Kentucky’s economy.

Wilbur said the bill would be particularly helpful for small to medium-sized businesses without the in-house expertise to wade through a web of federal law and case law to try to figure out what their responsibilities are.

“The clarity provided by Senate Bill 18 could help relieve this burden and legal exposure for Kentucky’s small to mid-sized business owners,” Wilbur said.

She also noted that Kentucky has a lackluster workforce participation rate among women, likely at least partly due to mothers or soon-to-be mothers quitting their jobs because of a lack of reasonable workforce accommodations.

“We believe that this is an important piece of legislation that balances the need to support women in the workplace while clearly and concisely defining what constitutes reasonable accommodations and when an employer is and is not obligated to provide them,” she said.

Though there is federal law to protect women with certain conditions, such as hypertension, there is inadequate protection “if you are healthy and do not have a disability and you simply want an accommodation to prevent an injury or a problem before it starts,” testified Elizabeth Gedmark of A Better Balance, a national legal advocacy organization.

“It’s extremely difficult for small businesses to understand and for employers to know what their rights are,” said Gedmark, a senior staff attorney.

 

Darla Carter

Darla Carter

Darla Carter is a hometown girl who recently joined the staff of Insider Louisville to mostly cover health. She previously served as a longtime health and fitness writer for The Courier-Journal, where she also worked for the Metro, Neighborhoods and Features departments. Prior to that, the award-winning journalist wrote for newspapers elsewhere in Kentucky and Tennessee, covering a range of topics, from education to courts. She's a graduate of Western Kentucky University, where she studied journalism and philosophy, and is the proud mom of two young children.