Happy Birthday to the NYC Pregnant Workers Fairness Act: The City Should Make Enforcement a Top Priority

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Friday, January 30, 2015

How many city officials does it take to figure out a reasonable accommodation for a pregnant police officer who is scheduled to take her promotional exam on the same day as her due date? In the case of Akema Thompson, who has been a police officer with the New York City Police Department for five years, the entire New York City Department of Citywide Administrative Services ("DCAS") was apparently not enough.

It all began as a classic case of unfortunate timing. Set to give birth on October 19, 2013, Akema Thompson learned that that would also be the day of her promotional exam for the rank of Sergeant within the NYPD. Because the exam is only given on an “as needed” basis—usually every two to five years—Akema had no idea that the exam would be scheduled on the same day as her due date. She also had no idea when her next opportunity to take the test would come around if she missed it.

Instead of rescheduling the exam or offering Akema a make-up date—something both Akema and NYPD wanted—DCAS offered her a pillow to sit on during the exam. DCAS also offered to provide her with extra time to finish her test. (For more details about Akema’s request, see the text of the charge Legal Momentum filed on her behalf with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.) Whether the city thought that the pillow and/or extra time would enable Akema to simultaneously give birth and take her exam isn’t clear. What is clear is that neither accommodation—or, for that matter, the two accommodations combined—sufficed. In light of her circumstances, Akema needed nothing short of a different date for her exam. To this, DCAS said no. This is staggering, given that accommodations are granted for religious observance, court appearances, and the death of a relative.

No law has addressed the need for accommodation under circumstances like these as clearly and as concisely as the New York City Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, which just celebrated its first anniversary. Using language that leaves no room for doubt, the law mandates that pregnant workers be reasonably accommodated for conditions involving pregnancy, childbirth and related conditions. 

The New York Times has complained that the law is under-enforced. Slate has as well. While there is no real way to measure the deterrent effect of the PWFA, under-enforcement concerns only underline the importance of the law: why it was needed in the first place, why it’s still important, and why its first birthday is something worth talking about.

Enforcing the PWFA deserves to be at the top of the city’s, and for that matter, everyone's, priority list. Women like Akema should be able to treat scheduling conflicts as inconveniences that can be easily fixed, rather than major career setbacks from which few people recover.

For details about the New York City Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, see our Fact Sheet.

Contributed by Staff Attorney Jelena Kolic