A career in construction can be a great way for a woman to support a family. It offers competitive wages (with near equal gender parity) and a wide variety of career opportunities (from the trades to professional and administrative roles). Often, you can start your career path in construction quickly with on-the-job training or apprenticeships. However, while being a woman in construction is full of challenges, being a pregnant woman working in the industry can be especially difficult.
Construction site engineer and project manager, Michelle Hands, documented what it is like being a woman in construction and pregnant in the field. A selfie of her wearing a hard hat and safety vest with “I’m building 2 things at once!” written on her pregnant belly went viral, drawing attention to the plight of pregnant construction workers.
In the US, pregnant women working in construction have often faced potential job loss or were forced to take unpaid leave since there is no guaranteed paid maternity leave. Some hid their pregnancy for as long as they could, increasing the possibility of a miscarriage from physical demands such as standing for long hours and heavy lifting.
Iron Workers Union first to offer pregnancy benefits
It was a miscarriage that spurred the Iron Workers union in 2017 to become the first trade union to provide pregnancy benefits. At the 2016 Women Build Nation Conference for tradeswomen, Iron Worker Bridget Booker shared how she had miscarried as an apprentice. “At that moment, the trades were not keen on having pregnant women on the job site. So you would hide it. [the question was] do I provide for my children […] or do I quit. Do I provide for my rent and my bills or do I tell them I am pregnant and lose everything?” she said.
Today, the International Association of Bridge, Structural, Ornamental and Reinforcing Iron Workers provides up to six months of paid pregnancy leave (capped at $800 per week) and six weeks (or 8 weeks in the case of a Cesarean birth) of paid maternity leave. The benefit can be used once every two years and is paid through an established welfare fund for workers who have suffered a non-work related injury. With the relatively low number of women members, and even fewer who are pregnant at any given time, the fund can easily accommodate the cost of the benefit. Given the cost to train an apprentice to journey level, it is more advantageous to support the return of trained workers to the field than to train a new person for the job.
Other trade unions, such as the International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers and the North Central States Regional Council of Carpenters, have followed suit with similar programs with the aim to retain more women construction workers and attract the next generation to the field.
Pregnant Workers Fairness Act
Now, with the passage of the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, which is set to take effect June 27, companies with more than 15 employees are required to provide reasonable accommodations to pregnant workers. Reasonable accommodations may include more bathroom breaks, a stool to rest on, light duty work, or equipment modification. This closes a loophole in the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 that required a pregnant woman to be “disabled” to receive accommodations.
Senator Bill Cassidy (R-LA), a physician and co-sponsor of the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act has called the bill “pro-family, pro-mother, pro-baby, pro-employer and pro-economy.”
Getting the word out about the benefits of the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act may be the biggest obstacle. In a Safety+Health magazine article, Marjorie Del Toro, CEO of the California-based environmental health and safety compliance group ehs International and the OSHA Alliance co-chair for NAWIC encourages construction workers to share information about the law with their pregnant colleagues. If a pregnant worker is hesitant to ask for accommodations, Del Toro has this advice: Take a courteous path into a conversation about the new law.
“People are still learning about it,” she said. “Go in and politely say, ‘I really need accommodations.’ Send them an email with a link to H.R. 1065 and say, ‘Respectfully, here are my rights.’”
Want to know more about women in construction?
With more than 5,100 members in 118 chapters across the US, the National Association for Women in Construction is the leading organization for women in the industry. NAWIC provides support, networking, mentorship, educational opportunities, and advocacy for women in all areas of construction. Reach out to a chapter near you.