Iowa Senate bill seeks to aid pregnant workers

DES MOINES – A Muscatine lawmaker is trying to ensure pregnant women don’t lose their jobs if they’re forced to stop working due to their condition.

Sen. Chris Brase, a Democrat, has sponsored a measure that has been approved by the Senate Local Government Committee. It would require that employers follow the medical recommendations of a pregnant employee’s physician and make reasonable accommodations to enable the worker to stay on the job. It now awaits a full Senate vote.

Unlike current law, employers couldn’t force workers to use up state or federally mandated temporary medical leave, even if they can’t perform all their regular duties.

“What this bill creates is an opportunity to make reasonable accommodations for pregnant women to do less strenuous duties so they can stay on the job longer,” Brase said.

The new law would apply to both the private and public sector. Under federal law, businesses that employ more than 50 workers must provide up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to be used during a pregnancy or after a birth. A state law requires that women not covered by the federal law be given at least eight weeks of leave.

Supporters of Brase’s bill point to cases in which employers refused to shift duties for pregnant women who can’t perform all their normal tasks. Such women can be left with a choice of beginning their mandated leave – and forgoing it later – or being fired.

Katie Guisinger found herself in such a situation in 2011, when she was working as a corrections officer at the Polk County Jail.

When she was 6 months pregnant, she found it nearly impossible to give new inmates the required head-to-toe pat downs.

“I couldn’t even reach my arms around,” she said in an interview. “The inmates started lifting their pants and taking off their socks for me.”

Although the county let her shift to different duties during her first pregnancy, her supervisors declined to do so during her second pregnancy.

“They said it’s not fair to the guys that you get special treatment because you’re pregnant,” Guisinger said.

Sgt. Jana Abens, a spokeswoman for the Polk County Sheriff’s Department, said the agency doesn’t change work duties simply because an employee is pregnant.

“It doesn’t automatically limit what they can do,” she said.

Asked about concerns that a pregnant employee couldn’t respond effectively to a physical altercation, Abens said, “We carry pepper spray and are taught to use those things first rather than go hands-on.”

Guisinger eventually quit her job and filed a lawsuit against the sheriff’s department. It was settled out of court for an undisclosed sum.

Alissa Jester was working for a medical equipment company in Davenport when she became pregnant and her doctor told her not to lift more than 20 pounds. After talking with her employer, the company forced Jester to take six weeks of medical leave and then fired her.

Her family relied on her income and health insurance at the time, and without the job was forced to move to Texas, where her husband could find work.

“I feel like I would still have my job without a doubt if this law were in place,” she said. “This shouldn’t happen to anybody…it’s been incredibly devastating.”

Brase, a firefighter, said his bill is directed at women who hold physically demanding jobs.

“There obviously comes a point in time where (pregnant women) shouldn’t be on the front line firefighting,” he said. “I know teachers that have worked all the way up through their eighth month of pregnancy, but then there are more physically demanding jobs where they don’t have those options.”

Although the bill was approved by a Senate committee, it was opposed by Republicans and seems to have little chance in the GOP-controlled House.

Mike Ralston, president of the Iowa Association of Business, which represents more than 1,400 companies, said his group opposes the bill. Ralston said the proposal would disproportionately affect small business that wouldn’t have enough employees to accommodate changes for pregnant employees.

“This law seems like a secondary amount of regulation,” he said.

Similar legislation also has been considered in Congress but has stalled.

Brase said he’s working to clarify the language in the Iowa bill and hopes to get it through the Senate before a legislative deadline on April 5 that would end consideration of the proposal this session.

“Worst case scenario, it’s not ready and comes up next session,” Brase said. “But I want to see that this is done to the best of our ability.”

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.