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NEWS-SENTINEL EDITORIAL: Legislature sidetracks bill on accommodations for pregnant employees for further study

What should we think about the Indiana Legislature’s move Monday that stalled a proposal to require Indiana businesses to provide greater protections against discrimination for pregnant or breastfeeding employees?

Senate Bill 342, sponsored by Republican Sen. Ron Alting of Lafayette, would require more Indiana businesses to accommodate pregnant women with longer breaks, less physical work and unpaid time off after childbirth.

The Republican-dominated Indiana Senate voted 34-15 Monday to delete the accommodations requirement from the bill, according to an Associated Press report, and to send the issue to a special committee to be studied following this year’s legislative session.

The Senate Family and Children Services Committee voted 7-2 a week earlier to endorse the bill, even though some business groups, including the Indiana Chamber of Commerce and the Indiana Manufacturers Association, argued it wasn’t necessary and could lead to greater burdens on small businesses.

State Health Commissioner Kristina Box told the committee that such job modifications as allowing pregnant women to sit while working or limiting how much weight they lift can help improve Indiana’s infant mortality rate, which is seventh-worst in the country.

The proposal was supported by Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb, who urged legislators in his State of the State speech last month to have Indiana join 27 other states that already have similar laws.

But Fort Wayne Republican Sen. Liz Brown told AP Monday she thinks legislators should have a better understanding of what is actually causing deaths among infants and mothers before making a law partially based on the idea that it will reduce infant mortality.

She also asked whether lawmakers need to know whether the law should specify what specific steps businesses need to take to accommodate their pregnant workers. She said many companies already provide such accommodations.

“I would rather have that conversation with my employer than have the big government come in and prescribe what accommodations have to be made and then that’s it,” Brown told AP.

Alting was joined by a bi-partisan group of 12 other senators in pushing the bill, which says an employer of a business with 15 employees or more would be prohibited from discriminating against a pregnant employee and would have to provide them with reasonable employment accommodations.

The only exception would be if the accommodation to the pregnant employee would place “undue hardship” on the business. According to the Indiana Civil Rights Commission, which would be responsible for resolving disputes, that hardship would be defined as an “action requiring significant difficulty or expense” to the operation of the business in terms of financial resources involved, number of people employed and the effect on the operation’s expenses and resources.

The bill lists the accommodations to include more and/or longer breaks, unpaid time off work to recover from childbirth, acquisition or modification of equipment, seating, temporary transfer to a less strenuous or less hazardous position, job restructuring, light duty, work break time for expressing breast milk, private non-bathroom space for expressing breast milk, assistance with physical or manual labor, modified work schedules and an accommodation prescribed by a health provider.

The Indiana Chamber of Commerce and Indiana Manufacturers Association say the accommodations requirement lacks any legal protections for businesses.

Mike Ripley, vice president of health care policy and employment law for the Indiana Chamber, told the Indianapolis Star the proposal would be particularly onerous for smaller companies and would put the onus on employers to prove that making accommodations would be an undue burden.

“Because the burden was shifted entirely to the employers under the bill, there is real fear of a lot more litigation,” Andrew Berger, senior vice president of the manufacturers group, told AP. “If there’s not an inherent need, an absolute need for the government to be involved … you should not add another layer into this system,” he said.

Alting said Monday he feared an overhaul of the bill could mean a delay of at least 18 months in putting a new law in place.

Our view is that workplace accommodations for pregnant workers is important to the health of mothers and their babies in Indiana. But we also share Sen. Brown’s fear of the possibility of undue and unwise measures dictated to businesses by government. Perhaps it is best to study the measure in more detail before making it state law.

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