by Tom Vitaglione
Think of it as a manager extending a benefit to employees, or perhaps recognizing it as an inherent right. Governor Roy Cooper, effectively the CEO of the largest employer in the state, has issued an Executive Order providing for workplace accommodations for pregnant state employees. This is not groundbreaking nationally, since 23 states already have these protections in place for all public and most private employees. It is noteworthy in North Carolina, however, because we are one of the few states with virtually no protections against pregnancy discrimination.
Workplace accommodations are short-term temporary adjustments to make the workplace “friendlier” for the small percentage of pregnant women who need them. Such adjustments could include a change in workstation and seating equipment; more frequent or longer breaks; uniform/dress code adjustments; or modified work assignments (think “no heavy lifting”). Importantly, they also include accommodations to support breastfeeding.
Since the Executive Order can cover only employees in state agencies that are directly under the Governor’s supervision, the next step will be to encourage the directly-elected Council of State members and the Court System to adopt the protections described in the Executive Order. These include the Secretary of State, the Lieutenant Governor, State Treasurer, State Auditor, the Superintendent of Public Instruction, and the Commissioners of Insurance, Agriculture & Consumer Services, and Labor.
The biggest step, however, would be for North Carolina adopt a statute and join the 23 states, now including South Carolina, that require all public and most private employers to offer workplace accommodations to pregnant employees. It is important to note that these statutes are not mandates. They are balanced approaches which allow exemptions for employers who can demonstrate that an accommodation would be an “undue burden” based on the nature and cost of the adjustment, the number of employees, etc. The benefit of these statutes is that they establish a mutual understanding of expectations and procedures that results in greater protections for employees and a reduction in complaints and grievances for employers to deal with.
The experience of the 23 states that have gone before us indicates that business does not suffer and economies do not implode. Rather, the statutes result in enhanced recruitment and retention. No longer do women need to choose between their pregnancy and their job. This leads to the best result of all: improved birth outcomes. As a state struggling with an extraordinarily high Infant Mortality rate, North the Carolina legislature should consider this policy very seriously during the 2019 session.
Many thanks to Governor Cooper for taking the initial step in a process that will help make North Carolina a better place to be a child and raise a child.
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