Lawmakers in Philadelphia have just signed legislation that now deems pregnancy as a disability. But how can a naturally-occurring human event possibly be called a disability?
Maternity Leave in the United States
Currently, the United States is one of only five countries in the world that doesn’t have some sort of paid maternity leave (the other four countries are Papua New Guinea, Swaziland, Liberia and Lesotho). If women want to have children and start families, it’s up to them to arrange the financing, or hope that their employer has voluntarily put something in place.
However, the U.S. does have a federal Family and Medical Leave Act, which was signed into law in 1993 and was the first of its kind. The FMLA says that employers are required to give up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for a variety of medical conditions, one of which is childbirth.
But the FMLA is also contained to companies that have at least 50 employees, which means that small mom-and-pop businesses or sole proprietors don’t have to follow it. Conversely, some states have gone ahead and set the threshold lower, which they can do. Companies that go above and beyond the FMLA tend to be the ones that attract and retain highly-qualified employees, and are usually ranked higher on lists of the best places to work at.
There are stipulations to the FMLA where employers with 50+ workers don’t have to give unpaid time off for medical conditions:
Employees who have been with the company less than 12 months
Employees who earn incomes that account for 10% of the top wages, as their taking unpaid time off
States with Some Form of Mat Leave
Currently, there are only nine states (Alaska, California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Louisiana, Maryland, New Jersey, Texas)—plus New York City—that have enacted some form of legislation where pregnant women can handle their physical symptoms without recourse. Now, Philadelphia has jumped on board and legislated pregnancy as a disability.
While on the surface this sounds absurd (how disabling can pregnancy be, or should be?), it makes sense. Without a federal law giving to-be mothers paid maternity leave, states are left to their own devices to ensure their mothers are looked after. And if women have to continue working to support themselves because the country doesn’t offer unpaid time off, then making the workplace more comfortable for them is a good idea.
To that extent, the amendment prevents discrimination against pregnant women if they need to focus on their pregnancy and take small breaks from work, such as being able to sit if she’s standing for a long time, restroom breaks, help with physical tasks like heavy lifting or moving, allowance to take some time off if a childbirth-related disability occurs, job restructuring, and being assigned to another or vacant position if need be.
On the surface, it looks a little funny to call a pregnancy a disability, but it’s the only way state governments can the lack of law for paid maternity leave. But to go as far as saying “it’s better than nothing” is a bit of an insult, because this country is a highly-intelligent and well-developed one, with an eye towards reviewing issues that could make it better.
America’s also a relatively young country, which means it has to endure some growing pains before it can be an established adult that provides for its citizens without training them to be dependent, and the issue of maternity leave is a perfect example. The country needs births to keep it populated, and mothers need to know they can afford to have children without their futures falling apart.
For now, Philadelphia made a good move but hopefully we can see the day where pregnancy equals paid time off for the mother and isn’t mislabelled as a “disability”.