An agreement among state lawmakers, business leaders and an advocacy group could pave the way for new accommodations for workers in Massachusetts who are pregnant or nursing mothers.
A bill, which appears on track for passage on Beacon Hill, would require most employers to provide "reasonable accommodations" for pregnant workers, which could include such things as more frequent and longer breaks, a modified work schedule or a temporary transfer to a less strenuous position.
The measure also seeks to prevent an expecting or new mother from being demoted or forced to take involuntary leave.
In a speech Tuesday to the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, Democratic House Speaker Robert DeLeo listed the bill, known officially as the pregnant workers fairness act, as an early priority in the current legislative session.
"Under this law, pregnant women will be protected from discrimination when it comes to commonsense accommodations like nursing needs and food, water and restroom breaks," said DeLeo. "And businesses will engage in a collaborative process with their employees to determine effective and reasonable accommodations."
The proposal also seeks to assure that nursing mothers who return to work would be given time and private space to pump breast milk.
The legislation had run into resistance from business groups in the past.
Richard Lord, president and chief executive of the trade group Associated Industries of Massachusetts, said the group opposed previous versions of the bill not because it was against protections for pregnant women, but because those earlier proposals did not offer any flexibility for employers, even those who had made what they considered to be multiple reasonable efforts to accommodate workers.
The compromise includes more business-friendly language that would exempt employers who can demonstrate that compliance would create ``undue hardship'' for their businesses, defined as a significant difficulty or expense. The burden would be on the company to prove such a hardship exists.
Associated Industries said the compromise also addressed other concerns by allowing more flexibility for employers in determining appropriate accommodations, and limiting the protections in the bill to current employees. Earlier versions included certain protections for pregnant job applicants as well.
The Hadley-based advocacy group MotherWoman, which has long pushed for better working conditions for pregnant women, lauded the compromise bill.
"We are excited that we've reached agreement on how to level the playing field for the hard-working women of Massachusetts," the group said in a statement.
During a hearing on the bill in 2015, lawmakers heard stories from women who said they were not allowed by their employers to sit, take lunch breaks or adequate restroom breaks while pregnant. Advocates said some workers were forced to choose between their paychecks and a healthy pregnancy, and at least one woman lost her baby.