Legal Aid for Low-Wage Pregnant Workers in Contra Costa County
A desire to empower low-wage families to access health-promoting workplace rights has resulted in a new partnership between Legal Aid at Work (formerly Legal Aid Society-Employment Law Center) and Contra Costa County Health Services, Family, Maternal and Child Health Programs. This innovative model makes legal resources available for low-wage families at locations that pregnant women and new parents already visit to obtain medical care, benefits or community services.
Low-wage pregnant workers and new parents are often pushed out of their jobs and foisted deeper into poverty at precisely the time when they need their income most. While California has some of the most expansive legal protections in the country to meet the workplace needs of pregnant women and new parents, many workers have no idea these protections exist. As a result, too often, their rights are denied. However, virtually all pregnant women receive prenatal care, and 84 percent of women giving birth in Contra Costa County initiate prenatal care in the first trimester. By making legal resources available to these individuals in Contra Costa County at the same places as medical care, benefits and community services, this new partnership will ensure that low-wage families across the County are able to understand and take advantage of their workplace rights.
Why is this important?
Low-income pregnant women frequently need pregnancy accommodations to keep working; such as help with heavy lifting, avoiding exposure to toxic fumes, sitting on a stool, carrying a water bottle or taking frequent bathroom breaks. Further, pregnant women need leaves of absence for pregnancy and childbirth-related disability and bonding with a new baby, continuation of health insurance during leave, and access to public benefits such as temporary disability insurance and Paid Family Leave. Even when new mothers return to work, they often need lactation accommodations and flexible or predictable schedules to enable them to continue breastfeeding their babies and meet their caregiving obligations.
Workplace conditions have a direct impact on health outcomes, particularly during the pregnancy, postpartum, and infant periods. Pregnancy leave and pregnancy-related accommodations (such as sitting while working or avoiding night shifts) decrease the likelihood of preterm birth and mortality. Longer maternity leave is associated with decreased maternal depression, and improved infant childhood cognitive development. Lactation accommodations facilitate maternal breastfeeding and reduce maternal stress. Breastfeeding has well-documented health benefits for mothers and infants. Paid sick leave also has positive health impacts on parents and children.
The medical legal partnership (“MLP”) approach allows for early intervention at the moment employment concerns arise, rather than waiting until after a woman already has lost her job and suffered devastating consequences to her wellbeing and financial security. Because the vast majority of patients do not know how to access legal services, harnessing the trusted relationship the family already has with their health care or social service professional is key to connecting individuals to much-needed legal resources they would otherwise never know about.
As a part of this MLP, Legal Aid at Work uses a multifaceted approach to help protect Contra Costa families. First, Legal Aid at Work provides trainings to client/patient-facing professionals within Contra Costa Health Services and other interested community organizations. Surveys of trained Contra Costa social service and health care providers show that 100% “agree” or “strongly agree” that “[a]ddressing patients’/clients’ employment-related legal needs is as important as addressing their medical condition,” and that “[t]his information will be useful to my patients/clients.” Legal Aid at Work also supports these professionals, and their clients or patients, by providing educational tools like the Pregnancy + My Job and Parenting + My Job flyers that illustrate how PFL, FMLA, and other laws help with job protection and wage replacement. View these flyers online at www.cccba.org/flyer/LAAW.pdf.
When professionals seek technical assistance or clients or patients have questions about their rights, they can call (800) 880-8047, Legal Aid at Work’s Work & Family Helpline, where anyone can leave a message with their questions and have their call returned by a counselor or attorney within two to three business days.
Additionally, Legal Aid at Work holds rotating on-site clinics across Contra Costa, including Pittsburg WIC, where pregnant women and new parents can meet face-to-face with Legal Aid attorneys who will advise them of their rights and work to help them get the time off, accommodations, or wage replacement to which they are entitled. Legal Aid has assisted countless visitors to the clinic as well as through its hotline. Their stories are personal and touching, each important as they start their family.
Legal Aid at Work, with Contra Costa Health Services, is working hard to ensure that all families in Contra Costa County have the opportunity to access workplace rights that benefit their health and wellbeing.
Katherine Wutchiett is a Skadden Fellow with Legal Aid at Work, where she leads the Contra Costa Work & Family MLP and protects the rights of pregnant women, parents, caregivers, and survivors of domestic and sexual violence to care for themselves and their loved ones without risking their jobs and income.