An opportunity to sit. A water bottle and snack. A limit on heavy lifting. A schedule that allows for doctor’s visits. These are among the accommodations pregnant women in Tennessee can request and receive without fearing repercussions under a new Tennessee law that went into effect in October. 

Many pregnant workers are unaware of these new workplace rights. With women increasingly dropping out of the workforce amid the COVID-19 pandemic and with studies indicating heightened COVID-19 risks for pregnant women, advocates for the Tennessee Pregnant Workers Fairness Act have shifted their focus to education to help ensure pregnant women can stay healthy and employed.

Doula Miajenell Peake (left) walks with her client Jasmine Worles at Shelby Farms Park in Memphis, Tennessee on January 24, 2021. As a doula, Miajenell will support Jasmine with many aspects of her pregnancy and after delivery. ( © Karen Pulfer Focht)
Doula Miajenell Peake (left) walks with her client Jasmine Worles at Shelby Farms Park in Memphis, Tennessee on January 24, 2021. As a doula, Miajenell will support Jasmine with many aspects of her pregnancy and after delivery. ( © Karen Pulfer Focht)

“Pregnant workers and employers across the state really need to know about this vitally important protection,” said Elizabeth Gedmark, who leads the Nashville office for national nonprofit advocacy organization A Better Balance. “We really want to make sure people are able to keep their jobs and that pregnancy is not a roadblock to them staying in the labor force and getting their paychecks and keeping their benefits when their families need it the most.”

Since 2015, Gedmark and other advocates for pregnant women in the workplace have fought for new protections from the Tennessee legislature that have been approved in 29 other states. In June, when much of the state’s focus was on navigating COVID-19, Tennessee lawmakers approved the measure unanimously and it was signed into law in July.

A Better Balance has since hosted webinars and published educational materials to help inform employers and employees and is seeking to work with health care professionals to help empower pregnant workers or those planning to be pregnant. 

Miajenell Peake, a doula who founded Memphis-based Peake Wellness to support maternal health, has helped more than 80 women give birth in the past four years and said she wants to see greater marketing around the legislation because most women are unaware of it.

Miajenell Peake, a doula in Memphis, Tennessee on January 24, 2021. As a doula, Miajenell supports and advocates for her clients in the many aspects of their pregnancy and delivery. ( © Karen Pulfer Focht)
Miajenell Peake, a doula in Memphis, Tennessee on January 24, 2021. As a doula, Miajenell supports and advocates for her clients in the many aspects of their pregnancy and delivery. ( © Karen Pulfer Focht)

“A lot of people don’t feel empowered for asking for what they want,” Peake said. “They feel like they are on the chopping block. They feel like they are not able to ask those questions or their supervisor won’t accommodate them.”

A warehouse in Memphis, owned by New Breed Logistics and XPO Logistics, was the focus of a 2018 New York Times investigation describing women who had miscarried after being denied workplace accommodations. One woman, whose duties included moving heavy boxes, had asked to move lighter loads and was told no. She suffered a miscarriage in her second trimester, according to the Times’ reporting. 

The Tennessee Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, sponsored by State Sen. Becky Massey of Knoxville and Rep. Chris Hurt of Halls, both Republicans, requires that companies employing 15 or more people provide “reasonable accommodations” for medical needs related to pregnancy, such as more frequent and flexible breaks, more frequent sitting if the job requires standing and allowing an individual to take on a temporary, vacant position when available. Businesses are not allowed to take action against a pregnant person for requesting or using the accommodations.

Tennessee employers do not have to provide accommodations that impose an “undue hardship” on operations, according to the new law. 

Gedmark said A Better Balance would hear from Tennessee women, especially those in low-wage jobs, who were denied reasonable accommodations to support their health during pregnancy, or they were uncertain about what their rights were. The new law clarifies expectations, “so people can sit down together and have a thoughtful conversation on what is needed for the health of these workers,” she said. 

Under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, a federal law passed in 1978, employers must provide accommodations for pregnant workers if they allow them for other workers who have similar limitations that are not related to pregnancy. The new law provides clarity on those accommodations. If those protections don’t exist for other workers, they don’t exist for pregnant women. While a federal version of the new Tennessee law has been proposed to require accommodations for all pregnant workers, it has failed to pass.

COVID-19, which has caused job disruption worldwide, has made the legislation even more critical, Gedmark said. There were two million fewer women in the U.S. employed in December 2020 than in February. The National Women’s Law Center reported while men gained 16,000 jobs in December, women lost 156,000 jobs during the same month. 

Doula Miajenell Peake (left) walks with her client Jasmine Worles at Shelby Farms Park in Memphis, Tennessee on January 24, 2021. As a doula, Miajenell will support Jasmine with many aspects of her pregnancy and after delivery. ( © Karen Pulfer Focht)
Doula Miajenell Peake (left) walks with her client Jasmine Worles at Shelby Farms Park in Memphis, Tennessee on January 24, 2021. As a doula, Miajenell will support Jasmine with many aspects of her pregnancy and after delivery. ( © Karen Pulfer Focht)

Pregnant women are also at a greater risk for severe illness and death from COVID-19, and they may be at increased risk for early delivery, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in November. 

A Better Balance has heard from pregnant women on frontline jobs worried about a lack of personal protective equipment, Gedmark said. The new law helps women who are concerned about their safety at work feel comfortable raising the issue with their employer. 

Lee Harrell, who leads state policy for the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce, said the chamber’s board supported passage of the Tennessee Pregnant Workers Fairness Act last year, seeing the measure as a means to provide clarity to employers on what is expected from them when supporting pregnant workers. In researching the issue in other states, he found the law had not led to increased litigation. 

“If (employers) can be helpful with ensuring a healthier pregnancy and delivery, it’s better for everyone in the end,” Harrell said. “A lot of employers didn’t know what they were supposed to do.”