UMass School of Public Policy alum celebrates passage of legislation that originated from her graduate studies

Governor Charlie Baker signing the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act into law

Photo Credit: Liz Friedman

Laura Sylvester, MPPA/MPH ’16, traveled to the Massachusetts State House in Boston on July 27 to celebrate Governor Baker signing a bill she helped create and shape as a graduate student -- the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act.

The legislation, officially known as Massachusetts Bill H.3680, closes loopholes in federal regulations by amending statewide law to guarantee pregnant employees will have equal treatment in the workplace during their pregnancy and after giving birth. Specifically, it prevents employers from denying workers reasonable accommodations such as “more frequent or longer paid breaks, time off to recover from childbirth, acquisition or modification or equipment or seating, temporary transfer to a less strenuous or hazardous position, private non-bathroom space for expressing breast milk, and modified work schedules” during pregnancy.

Sylvester, who is now the Legislative and Community Partnership Coordinator at The Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, first drafted the bill as a class project and she continued to analyze and refine it through several courses in the University of Massachusetts School of Public Policy (SPP) and the University of Massachusetts School of Public Health and Health Sciences (SPHHS). 

“The bill started as a Facebook post by Liz Friedman, former Program Director at MotherWoman, where we were bemoaning the lack of good family policies for working mothers both in Massachusetts and the U.S.," says Sylvester. “I was on the Board of Directors of MotherWoman at the time, and we decided to take the conversation offline and talk in person about what we could do.” Sylvester and Friedman came up with a wishlist of needed policies, which also included paid family leave and pay equity. The next semester, Professor Michael Ash’s Policy Analysis class, which Sylvester was taking, took on MotherWoman as a client and spent the semester analyzing those policies to determine which would be the most feasible for MotherWoman to sponsor and pass in Massachusetts. “When it became clear that pregnant workers fairness was the forerunner,” Sylvester said, “I decided I might as well write the initial draft of it for my legislative drafting class (taught by attorney Peter Vickery).” That draft was then refined by the New York based nonprofit A Better Balance, who had helped pass similar legislation in other states and who mentored MotherWoman in their efforts to pass the bill in Massachusetts.  

“It is a great example of connecting our coursework to the real world,” says SPP Professor M.V. Lee Badgett.

“It was a great day at the State House. Very satisfying to see the culmination of all that work end with the result we were hoping for,” says Sylvester. “It’s the kind of bill that we shouldn’t need to pass because it’s just common sense and common decency, but as we found as we started researching, that there have been thousands of cases of pregnancy discrimination in Massachusetts filed by women in the workplace over the past ten years. Most employers do the right thing and allow pregnant women the minor accommodations they need during pregnancy, but for those who don’t, there will now be consequences and women won’t have to worry that they’ll lose their jobs when they ask for them.”

Sylvester says she's grateful to have been given this opportunity, through her SPP classwork, her public health practicum, capstone, and her final MPH project to take such a deep dive into a policy issue that she feels so passionately about. "It was a hands-on chance to take a policy from initial idea to signed law and is a testament to the strength of SPP and SPHHS’s faculty, classes, and students, who all played a role in getting the bill passed, along with MotherWoman and the coalition of agencies and unions we put together." 

The bill will go into effect on April 1, 2018.

Learn About the School of Public Policy