Indiana lawmaker proposes change to sex discrimination law — starting with pregnancy
Robin Shackleford wants to end sex discrimination in the workplace.
But as a Democratic state representative in a Republican-controlled General Assembly, Shackleford says she must tread the line of bipartisanship to change the law.
"That's politics," the Indianapolis representative says. Change comes gradually in Indiana.
This legislative session Shackleford plans to propose a bill that would expand workplace protections for pregnant workers — and chip away at provisions in state law that enable sexual harassment.
Calling for "reasonable employment accommodations" for pregnant women, such as additional work breaks and exemptions from heavy lifting, Shackleford is challenging the state's 56-year-old civil rights code that governs sex discrimination — vis-à-vis pregnancy — in the workplace.
An IndyStar report published late last month revealed how provisions in the civil rights code prevent victims of sex discrimination from having their day in court. That includes pregnant women.
One provision requires that an employer accused of sex discrimination must agree to be sued. The other prevents employees of businesses with fewer than six employees from suing their employers at all.
Federal civil rights law applies to workplaces with 15 or more employees, but for employees at small companies, Indiana’s code and similar laws across the country provide little to no protection against workplace sex discrimination, employment law experts say.
Shackleford's bill would allow a pregnant woman to bring claims against her employer for sex discrimination without getting consent from the employer to bring the suit.
While Shackleford champions the rights of pregnant employees, an Indiana University law professor who teaches sexual harassment law says Shackleford's bill should go further. Much further.
"To protect all women, not just pregnant women," Jennifer Drobac said.
"I applaud any effort to improve the law," she said, "but Indiana needs dramatic change."
Neighboring states Michigan, Ohio and Kentucky are not as restrictive to employees who want to bring a sex discrimination claim against their employer, Drobac said.
Shackleford told IndyStar that she wants to at least start the conversation on how to change Indiana's discrimination code.
"I have heard women complain about these issues in the workplace," she said.
Nearly two-thirds of pregnant Hoosiers work during their pregnancy, according to 2016 data from the U.S. Census Bureau.
Heath VanNatter, who heads the House Committee on Employment, Labor and Pensions, said he spoke to Shackleford about the bill but declined to say whether it would get a hearing.
The Kokomo Republican agrees with Shackleford's approach of taking gradual steps toward change. "If you can get everything you want that is great, but it's rare," he said.
"Another bill that asks for more may not get any movement at all," he told IndyStar.
Erin Macey, a policy analyst for the Indiana Institute for Working Families, said her organization approached Shackleford about introducing the bill.
Macey argues that "a pregnant woman shouldn't have to choose between having a safe pregnancy and having a job."
She agrees that the state's civil rights code needs to change, and she also recognizes the difficulty ahead in doing so. "It's an interesting challenge to try to figure how to get this protection (for pregnant women) and fit this into the context of Indiana law," Macey said.
She says her main goal is to "provide more tools to promote family economic security and keep mom and babies healthy."
Shackleford says she is confident that some good will come from her bill, even if change comes piecemeal.
"This is a common sense law," she said. "We will definitely be advocating for a hearing."
Call IndyStar reporter Fatima Hussein at (317) 444-6209. Follow her on Twitter:@fatimathefatima.