Proposed Bill to Safeguard Pregnant Women’s Economic Security

Section policy research assistant Shoshana O’Brien explores the present and potential future rights of pregnant employees in Illinois. 

Many pregnant women continue working throughout their pregnancies to provide economic security for themselves and their families. Pregnant women are just as productive and capable as women who are not pregnant. However, in Illinois, pregnant workers in many occupations are not protected from losing their jobs because of their pregnancies.

No woman should have to choose between having a healthy pregnancy or being able to keep her job and pay her bills. Women, when they become pregnant, remain capable of working just as effectively as before their pregnancies. However, advocates voice concerns that pregnant women working in physically strenuous or hazardous occupations,from nursing to law enforcement, routinely confront situations in which they are physically unable to perform aspects of their job or, although physically able to do the job, seek to avoid certain job tasks, such as heavy lifting, because of the potential risks to maternal or fetal health. Because of potential risks to fetal and maternal health, pregnant workers often require simple accommodations that many employers refuse to grant.

pregnant worker


Pregnant workers can be fired or forced out of their jobs because their employers deny them simple work modifications—permission to carry a water bottle, a break from lifting heavy boxes, more frequent bathroom breaks—that would allow these pregnant women to remain in the workplace, to keep their insurance coverage, to provide for their families, and to maintain a healthy pregnancy.[1] These temporary work modifications are especially important for the economic security and prosperity of lower income women and women who are single heads of households. For many of these women losing a job means losing her and her family’s health insurance, economic instability and possible eviction, homelessness, and bankruptcy.

In Illinois, 50% of people receive health insurance through employer-sponsored plans[2]. When a pregnant employee loses her job, she also loses her health insurance. Even if she becomes eligible for Medicaid, she may still have a gap in her health insurance, and her health providers will likely change. This is disastrous from a public health perspective, from a human rights perspective, and from an economic perspective. Health insurance during pregnancy is especially crucial because prenatal care is important in avoiding pregnancy complications like low birth weight and infant mortality[3]. Losing health insurance disrupts a pregnant woman’s access to healthcare at a critical time for her and her child. When an employer refuses to provide pregnant women with temporary job modifications, pregnant women can be coerced into taking unpaid leave, or be fired. If a pregnant worker cannot afford to lose her paycheck and health insurance, she may put her own health, as well as her pregnancy, at risk by continuing to work in unsafe conditions.

House Bill 8[4], a bill currently up before the Illinois Legislature, would ensure that working pregnant women are accommodated by their employers in the workplace so they can continue working throughout their pregnancies. HB 8 promotes workplace fairness and women’s health by requiring employers to make reasonable accommodations for conditions related to pregnancy, childbirth, and related conditions, unless such accommodations would cause an undue hardship on the employer. The protections provided in HB 8 are based on the protections given to disabled Americans in the workplace under the Americans with Disabilities Act. If passed, House Bill 8, like the Americans with Disabilities Act, would prevent employers from pushing pregnant workers out of their places of work by requiring employers to make reasonable accommodations for conditions related to pregnancy, childbirth, and related conditions unless the employer can show that the accommodation would impose an undue hardship on the ordinary operation of the employer’s business—just as employers do for limitations caused by other conditions, such as injury or illness on the job. Nationally, the share of workers who give birth each year is only 1.6 percent of all workers, and a significantly smaller share of workers would require pregnancy accommodations.[5]

While federal law already requires employers to provide pregnant workers the same treatment and benefits as other workers who are similar in their ability or inability to work, courts and employers have interpreted these laws as to deny pregnant workers the kinds of job modifications that courts and employers routinely offer to other employees who are injured on the job or otherwise disabled. This has significant consequences for the health and well-being of pregnant women as well as their families. Additional protections for pregnant workers would ensure that women do not have to choose between the health of their pregnancy and their economic security.




UPDATE: This bill has passed in the Illinois House of Representatives and will now go on to the Senate.

About the Author:

My name is Shoshana O’Brien, and I am a graduating student of the University of Chicago Law School and the University of Chicago Graduate Program in Health Administration and Policy. I am also a 2011 alum of the College, where I double majored in Near Eastern Languages and Cultures. I am passionate about social justice, civil liberties, increasing access to health care and human rights. As a policy research assistant at the Section of Family Planning & Contraceptive Research within University of Chicago Department of Obstetrics & Gynecology, I work on reproductive rights issues. Currently, I am authoring a policy brief about access to reproductive healthcare for persons with developmental disabilities in Illinois, focusing on issues of voluntary and involuntary sterilization. In addition to my work in the reproductive health field, I have been involved for almost three years with the Mental Health Law Clinic.  Last summer,  I worked abroad in Australia and South Korea. In Darwin, Australia, I worked as a Norval Morris Criminal Justice Fellow with the NAAFVLS, where I continued my interest in healthcare policy and law by tracking the health consequences of legal responses to domestic violence in at risk indigenous communities in Australia and the United States. While in South Korea working for Human Asia, I focused on human rights issues in the Middle East as well as domestic violence concerns in South Korea.

[1] Farrell N, Dolkas J, Munro M. Expecting A Baby, Not A Lay-Off: Why Federal Law Should Require the Reasonable Accommodation of Pregnant Workers. Equal Rights Advocates 2013. Available at:

[2] Henry J . Kaiser Family Foundation. Health Insurance Coverage of the Total Population, Accessed April 7, 2014.

[3] Farrell N, Dolkas J, Munro M. Expecting A Baby, Not A Lay-Off: Why Federal Law Should Require the Reasonable Accommodation of Pregnant Workers. Equal Rights Advocates 2013. Available at:

[4] To read the full bill, as well as all house modifications see: and .

[5] National Women’s Law Center. Pregnant Workers Make Up a Small Share of the Workforce and Can Be Readily Accommodated: A State-By-State Analysis. Washington D.C.: National Women’s Law Center; March 2013, available at: