February 10, 2017

Bill to require ‘reasonable accommodations’ for working pregnant women advances

The seal of the state of New Mexico in the House

A bill to require workplaces to provide “reasonable accommodations” to pregnant workers passed a state House committee on party lines Friday morning.

During debate, Southwest Women’s Law Center attorney Sarah Coffey provided examples of “reasonable accommodations,” which included allowing pregnant workers to have a bottle of water at their desks, giving them more bathroom breaks and allowing them to walk around the office when needed.

“We’re trying to alert women and employers that women don’t need to necessarily quit their jobs or stay home if there’s a small accommodation made to keep working,” state Rep. Gail Chasey, D-Albuquerque and sponsor of the legislation, said at the hearing.

Three Republicans on the House Health and Human Services Committee—state Reps. Rebecca Dow of Truth or Consequences, Gail Armstrong of Magdalena and James Townsend of Artesia—voted against the measure. But of them, Dow made the most comments and hinted that she could support such legislation down the line, noting that she worked at her job through her pregnancy.

An existing state human rights law doesn’t allow employers to discriminate against women employees because of their gender. But Coffey and others in support of the measure emphasized that state law does not provide as much protections to women pregnant in the workplace.

State Rep. Deborah Armstrong, D-Albuquerque, recalled working as a physical therapist while she was pregnant and not being able to lift heavier patients. Because she couldn’t lift heavier patients, Armstrong said other employees accused her of cherry-picking easier patients.

“I can absolutely relate,” Armstrong said. “I know it goes on personally.”

If it becomes into law, the bill would allow employees who feel discriminated against while pregnant to pursue grievances through the existing state Human Rights Act.

In the workplace, protections under the state Human Rights Act apply to businesses of four or more employees. Federal human rights laws, in contrast, cover businesses of 50 or more employees.

Protections in Chasey’s bill would apply to state law, meaning employers of four or more people. Dow noted this when expressing her concerns about the measure.

“My biggest concern is that if a small business did have a lawsuit [filed against it], the cost of the suit, no matter the outcome, could close the small business,” Dow, who herself and the non-profits she operates were recently sued, said. “I’m thinking of women like myself.”

Dow asked for a copy of the state Human Rights Act to review before Chasey’s bill potentially advances to the House floor.

State Rep. Joanne Ferrary, D-Las Cruces, said the bill would help with economic development, noting that many women make the choice between providing for their families and expanding their families.

“This is the slant we’re looking for in our state right now,” Ferrary said.

This bill now heads to the House Judiciary Committee.