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Pregnant women receive protection in the workplace from new Illinois law

Written by Ankin Law Office

Chicago workers comp lawyers knows that working mothers are a crucial part of the country’s economy. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 70 percent of American mothers with children under 18 were active in the labor force during 2012. Many mothers continue to work during their pregnancies and the first months of their child’s life. A new law passed in Illinois offers a greater level of workplace protection to pregnant employees and mothers who have recently given birth, allowing them to continue in their jobs without facing unnecessary health risks.

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Accommodations pregnant Illinois workers infographic

Difficulties for pregnant employees

According to the National Women’s Law Center, nearly three out of five pregnant women currently go on working, at least part-time, into the final month of their pregnancy. As the rate of pregnancy in the workplace has steadily increased, the level of risk and ill-treatment has also gone up: charges of discrimination against pregnant women have almost doubled since the early 1990s. Federal law has added no new protections for pregnant workers in the past three decades, even though the number of pregnant employees and new mothers at work continues to rise.

A new Illinois law protecting pregnant women

In August 2014, Illinois Governor Pat Quinn signed a new law, known as House Bill 8, amending the Illinois Human Rights Act to offer more protection to pregnant women in the workplace. The Act already prohibits overt discrimination on the basis of current or recent pregnancy. This new amendment expands the existing law to require modification of work duties when requested by pregnant or nursing employees. It is constructed along the same lines as Illinois anti-discrimination laws that protect disabled workers: pregnancy is to be treated as a temporary disability which is entitled to all reasonable accommodations. The amendment takes effect at the beginning of 2015.

What are reasonable accommodations according to House Bill 8?

Chicago workers comp lawyers will explain that House Bill 8 includes a checklist of accommodations which must be offered on request to pregnant workers, including all of the following:

  • Modified, lighter or less hazardous duty
  • Adjusted seating
  • Longer or more frequent rest breaks
  • Assistance with strenuous physical tasks
  • Adjustment of training and examinations as needed
  • Enhanced worksite accessibility

This checklist is non-exclusive. Pregnant employees may request other accommodations as needed in the workplace.

Do the provisions of House Bill 8 continue after the birth of the child?

The new amendments to the Illinois Human Rights Act continue to protect pregnant workers from the hazards of workplace injury or illness after the child is born. Employees may request unpaid leave to recover from childbirth or the aftereffects of pregnancy. The amendment also offers increased provisions for breastfeeding women in the workplace. Women must have access to sufficient breaks for nursing or pumping milk in a clean, safe, private space. Employers may not refuse to accommodate new mothers because of their breastfeeding status.

House Bill 8 protects women against retaliation

House Bill 8 forbids employers from retaliating against workers who choose to take time off after pregnancy. If a worker takes a pregnancy-related leave and returns to work, her employer is required to reinstate her to her original position or to another position at an equivalent level of pay and seniority. Benefits and retirement funds must be preserved intact during the period of leave. Employers are also forbidden from forcing pregnant workers or new mothers to take a required leave of absence. The choice to suspend or continue employment belongs solely to the woman and her family.

What are the pregnant worker’s obligations according to the new law?

House Bill 8 also creates distinctive obligations for pregnant workers who wish to benefit from increased accommodations. Employees must speak with their employers about proposed accommodations in a “timely, good faith and meaningful” manner. When a woman requests a specific modification to her work duties or her work environment, she must allow her employer sufficient time to make the necessary change. Leaves of absence must be negotiated in advance. New mothers must also notify their employers of their intent to return to work after a leave.

What does House Bill 8 mean for employers?

Many employers will need to reconsider their existing policies on pregnant employees. The necessary accommodations in some industries may be relatively small, a matter of no more than adjusted break schedules and a revised leave policy. Other industries and professions may face more complicated changes to accommodate pregnant women and new mothers. House Bill 8 gives employers the power of discretion over employee requests. Although a worker can request any reasonable accommodation, the employer reserves the right to deny a request if it would demonstrably cause undue hardship.

Projected effects

These new amendments to Illinois law are projected to have wide-ranging effects for women in the workplace. Chicago workers comp lawyers understand that many women currently face difficult career decisions during and after pregnancy as they weigh the benefits of unpaid leave or continuing a hazardous job. According to the National Partnership for Women and Families, more than 600,000 family households in the state of Illinois are headed by working women. For single mothers and women who lack strong family support, the new law will offer a greater level of career stability and safety. This legislation will have an especially strong effect on low-income women, many of whom have traditionally worked in high-risk industries while pregnant or nursing.