THE SENATE TOOK a needed step toward providing women with on-the-job equality last week. By a vote of 75 to 11, it passed an amendment to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 requiring that pregnancy be included in any workers' disability program offered by employers. The immediate effect of the legislation, if it becomes law, will be to overturn a Supreme Court decision holding that the exclusion of pregnancy from such programs is not discrimination based upon sex. That decision seemed to be a strained interpretation of the 1964 act when it was announced last December, and we urge the House to join the Senate promptly in undoing it.
The way in which many employers look upon pregnancy has long been a problem for many working women. A male employee unable to work because he has broken a leg, say, playing touch football usually was able to use sick leave or receive disability pay until he recovers. But a female employee who has been unable to work because she was having a baby has often been denied sick leave as well as disability pay and sometimes summarily was dismissed. This attitude began to change a decade or so ago; but it is still sufficiently widespread to put a hardship on many women who either must work before, during and after pregnancy, or who want to. The amendment passed by the Senate says employers must not treat women who can't work because of pregnancy differently from the way they treat men (or women) who can't work because of some other physical condition. About half of the states already have similar laws.
In a country in which 36 million women work and some 80 per cent become pregnant during their working lives, this change is not insignificant. Yet it is overdue. Two-thirds of those 36 million are in the work force because of pressing economic needs at home. About 40 per cent of all pregnant women now work during pregnancy, and many of them return to work as quickly as they can after the baby is born. Common sense requires that for these women, at least, pregnancy be treated as no more a disruption of their working lives than a broken leg. When continuity at work has as large a role in determining pay scales, promotions and pension rights as it now does in many industries, treating pregnancy as such as temporary disruption rather than a termination of employment is a major step toward giving working women equal rights.