The Senate Is an Outdated Workplace Unsuited to New Moms

UPDATE: On April 18, the Senate voted in favor of a resolution submitted by Duckworth that will finally allow senators to bring newborns onto the chamber floor during votes. In a statement following the historic rule change, Duckworth said, “I would like to thank my colleagues on both sides of the aisle, particularly those in leadership and on the Rules Committee, for helping bring the Senate into the 21st Century by recognizing that sometimes new parents also have responsibilities at work.”

This week, U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, Democrat from Illinois, made history by becoming the first senator to give birth while serving in office. But within that headline is a truth unworthy of celebration: Due to outdated Senate policies, Duckworth may be unable to vote on legislation while she’s on parental leave.

The problem stems from the interplay of two Senate rules: Senators must be physically present to cast votes, and they may not bring children onto the Senate floor. Coupled with the fact that senators are not covered by any formal parental leave policy, these rules highlight just how out of touch the Senate is with modern life. It’s unacceptable that our public servants have failed to welcome a world in which a senator weighing in on legislation may also happen to be breastfeeding or caring for a new baby.

Duckworth is unfortunately not alone in facing a conflict between caring for her child and doing her job. Indeed, countless working parents face far worse, including outright job loss. The problem is largely that businesses are still designed for people who don’t give birth and aren’t primary caregivers. In other words, employers still cater to the male workforce of a century ago.

From pregnancy through parenthood, workers today face widespread discrimination despite laws such as the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA), which was enacted 40 years ago, and the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which Congress passed in 1993.

For instance, our client, Illinois police officer Jennifer Panattoni, was forced to take roughly 7 months of unpaid leave when she was pregnant because her department wouldn’t temporarily reassign her from patrol duties. They refused her request for desk work even though the department routinely reassigns workers with other medical conditions that interfere with patrolling.

Katia Hills, a young mom in Indiana, is the lead plaintiff in our class action challenging AT&T Mobility’s punitive attendance policy. After taking time off for medical appointments, Hills lost her job because the company didn’t make any exceptions for pregnancy-related absences despite excusing other kinds of absences.

We also represent a class of female dockworkers up and down the west coast, whose ability to access high-paying union jobs is stymied by a discriminatory policy. The women’s seniority freezes when they take pregnancy-related leave, while coworkers absent due to on-the-job injuries or military service face no such penalty.

Workplace discrimination often continues after employees give birth. Those who are breastfeeding and return to the job, for instance, are often faced with employers who refuse to provide a safe, clean place to pump breast milk. This was the case for the flight attendants and pilots at Frontier Airlines, which offers no paid maternity leave or accommodations for employees who are nursing. As a result, many Frontier pilots and flight attendants have been forced to choose between going on unpaid leave and suffering the often painful consequences of being unable to pump milk at work.

Further, workplaces fail to provide parents the security they need to take care of their children and themselves. Although the FMLA provides 12 weeks of unpaid leave, only 60 percent of American workers are eligible under the law. Because there is no federal requirement for paid parental leave, only 13 percent of private sector workers have access to such a benefit.

Moreover, leave is gendered in a way that limits parents’ ability to care for their children. Sex stereotypes and discriminatory leave policies often make fathers ineligible for parental leave or unable to take such leave as a practical matter. This forces women to assume the role of primary caregiver regardless of what might be best for them and their families.

It is time our workplaces — including the U.S. Senate — adapt to meet the current reality: People who work may get pregnant, may need time off for caregiving, and may return to work while they are breastfeeding. These human conditions should not deprive them of the opportunity to continue to work if they are eager and able to do so.


View comments (27)
Read the Terms of Use


Well Steve, that's an interesting comment. Do you believe that child bearing women should not be in the workplace? Or, that if they are, they should have less ability to perform their parental duties than those whose workplace is more family friendly?


"The women’s seniority freezes when they take pregnancy-related leave, while coworkers absent due to on-the-job injuries or military service face no such penalty." Does the seniority freeze also freeze for off-the-job injuries? That would be more in line with a pregnancy.

Karen Holmes

There is a misunderstanding in the US legal system that is causing chaos. Many people see two levels--Constitutional law and federal law--when there are actually three levels. What is oftentimes left out is Universal Law. There are always three levels--the principles, the power and the project, so when Universal law is left out, the principles of equality, liberty, freedom, compassion, abundance, capacity and tolerance are left out, and this level is where we get our unalienable rights.

Constitutional law is the power level, and the constitution addresses use of power and abuse of power--the duties and responsibilities, but also when to remove an elected official from office for abuse of power. The constitution is not fixed, it is evolutionary, and our nation evolves and devolves based on power games.

Federal Law must stand on both constitutional law and Universal law, or it creates chaos in our legal system. It cannot supersede constituional law and constitutional law cannot supersede Universal Law.

My organization is working to create an international government based on the US Constitution, and its legal system will be based on Universal Law--the only possible basis, because Universal Law applies to every atom in the Universe. Before the Constitution can be used as the basis for an international government, we must purify laws and practices that are causing chaos to prevent the chaos from spreading onto the international level. We are starting by writing to the US Supreme Court and explaining this misunderstanding.


We are one of two developed countries in the world that offer no type of paid medical leave. It's ridiculous. People have babies, it's what keeps us going. Employees are humans, not just bottom lines. Is it really so terrible to let her bring her newborn baby on the floor? Breastfeeding is a natural act. Anyone that sees it otherwise is the pervert and should check themselves. No one should ever have to resign because they chose to further their family., Which in a way is a contribution to society. John McCain has a brain tumor and no one is calling for his resignation.

PR Taisho

Its not "people" who work . . its WOMEN who need to choose if they want to work or unplanned pregnancies which effect the workplace. Women's privacy (breastfeeding) should NOT impact workplace production.

Dr. Timothy Leary

It would be wonderful if anybody could take off work any time they wanted for whatever reason they wanted, but in a profit driven, capitalist economy it's not possible. So just grin and bear it and get back to work preferably more than 40 Hours a week America.


United States Postal Service doesnt pay women maternity leave you either have to use up all sick and vacation time or go unpaid regardless of your position. They will give you the 12 week FMLA but they will not pay you for it unless again you use all of your own accured time off.


Stay Informed