AT THE OFFICE: Job-related claims of pregnancy bias on the rise
Samantha Stone, 29, would like to have a baby soon. But with the job market tenuous, being pregnant in the workplace has become much more risky. Just look at the number of pregnant women who are blogging about job discrimination, filing lawsuits ...
Samantha Stone, 29, would like to have a baby soon. But with the job market tenuous, being pregnant in the workplace has become much more risky.
Just look at the number of pregnant women who are blogging about job discrimination, filing lawsuits for unfair removal and turning to advocacy groups for relief after being targeted in job cuts.
Claims of pregnancy discrimination are on the rise, maternity leaves are a luxury and conducting a job search while pregnant is like trying to win the lottery.
Even more, many pregnant women are shocked to learn they have few workplace protections. Women swept into the layoff frenzy are discovering you can be fired while pregnant or on maternity leave.
In the tough economy, employers consider expecting mothers to be expendable employees, says Robert Weisberg, a Miami labor lawyer who represents victims of discrimination. "In these times, pregnancy is viewed as a real liability."
Weisberg says more employers consider new mothers less productive and don't want the disruption of maternity leave. "Women are telling me they've been encouraged, coerced or told by their boss to have their baby and stay home."
He adds, "When business is good and the job market isn't as tight, they're much more tolerant."
The numbers reflect this lack of tolerance. Pregnancy-bias complaints recorded by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission rose 14 percent in 2008 to 5,587, the biggest annual increase in 13 years.
As the complaints stream in, Nora Curtin, an attorney with the EEOC, says, "It's still shocking to me that some employers are blatant about this kind of discrimination."
In Florida, the EEOC is suing one of the largest general contractors in the Southeast, Choate Construction, on behalf of an administrative assistant. The woman claims a manager on a construction site criticized her for getting pregnant, harassed her, and called her a liability. She was fired shortly after she complained to human resources.
Choate denies the claim and says the firing was performance based.
Attorney Stuart I. Grossman says the most common employer defense against pregnancy bias has become the economy. "Companies will assert they need to reduce their workforce to survive and the burden shifts to the employee to prove otherwise."
What employers cannot do is treat expecting mothers differently than they would another employee or job candidate. The Pregnancy Discrimination Act says it is illegal to fire, or not hire, a person because she is pregnant. To succeed in a claim, a woman who brings charges must prove an employer's action was motivated by her pregnancy or status as a mother.
"The law is not designed to treat a pregnant woman or new mother differently or give them more rights. It's designed to keep them equal," explains Grossman of Tew Cardenas, which defends employers against bias claims.
In the most obvious way, getting the ax while pregnant is a double whammy. Employers are warned that asking personal questions in job interviews can get them in legal hot water. But in a tight job market, chances of finding work while pregnant are minimal, even with the law on your side.
Combine job fears with economic factors and it is no wonder America's first decline in births this decade came in 2008. Florida and California, the two states hit hardest by the housing crisis, saw the largest drops.
"I had really hoped to have two children by the time I was 30," says Stone, who fears being laid off, pregnant, and without health insurance.
Stone works at a construction company and her husband is self-employed and covered by her policy.
Such risk has become too high for families that depend on women for economic security, says Debra Ness, president of the National Partnership for Women & Families. "In this recession, many men have been laid off, leaving families with the wife's paycheck as the primary source of income."
New moms often are unaware they aren't entitled by federal law to paid childbirth leave. Nataly Kogan, founder of WorkItMom.com, says if your family needs your income you have to make some judgment calls. "The harsh reality is that it's important to be in the loop, be visible. That may mean shorter maternity leave," she says.
It may also mean grappling with how to handle a job search. Career websites are filled with pregnant women out of work querying whether they should tell a prospective employer they're pregnant during the interview process. Kogan says the key is to emphasize commitment to your job. "The burden is on the employee to emphasize your productivity and your intention to come back."