AUGUSTA — Pregnant women who may need to sit down or use a bathroom more frequently would be protected at work better under a bill proposed by Rep. Ann Dorney, D-Norridgewock.
Dorney told members of the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee Wednesday that as a family practitioner for more than 30 years in Skowhegan, she has helped many women continue to work through their pregnancies. Her bill, L.D. 830, would require employers to make reasonable accommodations for pregnant women, such as allowing them to sit periodically even if they normally stand all day, or let them carry a water bottle, even if company policy prohibits it.
“Most women are able to continue their current job without any difficulty and would not need any protections, but for those who are having problems, this change in law would be helpful to allow them to continue to work,” she said.
The bill was one of two heard by the committee Wednesday that would extend protections for women in the workplace.
The other measure, L.D. 777, would allow women to file a complaint with the Maine Human Rights Commission if their employer does not provide a clean, private place for them to express breast milk during the workday.
As an example of why the reasonable accommodations bill would be beneficial, Eliza Townsend of the Maine Women’s Lobby said a Maine woman who recently took a second job at a national retailer developed sciatica during her pregnancy. The woman asked to be able to use a stool when she wasn’t helping customers, Townsend said.
“The employer only provided it reluctantly, and required her to bring in a doctor’s note every six weeks, asking each time when the condition was expected to change,” she said.
In other places across the country, some pregnant women have lost their jobs because they carried a water bottle to work, asked to be required to lift less weight, or wanted to avoid climbing ladders, she said.
Rep. Anne Graham, D-North Yarmouth, sponsor of the breastfeeding bill, said women who are breastfeeding need to express their breasts regularly during the workday to stay healthy and keep an adequate supply of milk for their infants.
State law requires employers to provide a room other than a bathroom where new mothers can pump their breasts, but the only penalty for an employer who fails to do so is a fine of up to $500.
Graham wants women to be able to go to the Maine Human Rights Commission, which then could provide grounds for a court case. Remedies in court include civil damages, compensatory or punitive damages and the worker’s ability to get her job back if she was fired because she asked for the private room, said Amy Sneirson, executive director of the Maine Human Rights Commission.
Both bills earned support from the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, the Maine Human Rights Commission, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, the Maine Women’s Lobby and the Maine Right to Life Committee.
The Maine Restaurant Association opposed both bills, saying current laws are adequate and that there is no evidence of a “mass of employer noncompliance.” Now pregnant women can file a complaint with the Department of Labor if they have not been provided a private room.
“I can assure you that the last thing any Maine employer wants is a call from the Department of Labor,” said Dick Grotton, president of the restaurant association.
James Erwin, an attorney who spoke on behalf of insurance company Unum, opposed Dorney’s bill, saying it would require employers to treat pregnancy as if it were a disability, which is contrary to federal law.
“Requiring employers to accommodate the effects of ordinary pregnancies as if they were disabilities, when the law says they are not, adds an unnecessary and duplicative protection that will create confusion and, most certainly, litigation,” he said.
The Maine State Chamber of Commerce also opposed Graham’s bill, saying it would create confusion.
The committee plans to hold a work session on both bills in the coming weeks.
Susan Cover — 621-5643