Forget the fancy brunches, chocolates and flowers for a moment. Mother’s Day is the perfect time to call attention to a persistent workplace issue: pregnancy discrimination.
In this country, anchored by adoration for Mom and apple pie, it’s almost unfathomable that discrimination against expectant mothers even exists. It is illegal under federal and state laws to discriminate against a working woman because she’s pregnant or has just given birth. Still, of the various types of workplace discrimination, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reports the largest rate of increase is in pregnancy discrimination charges.
While you’re out perusing the Mother’s Day cards, consider this: The number of pregnancy discrimination charges received by the EEOC increased from 3,387 cases in 1992 to 5,587 cases in 2007 – a jump of 65 percent. According to figures released in March, the EEOC received a record 6,285 complaints of pregnancy discrimination in 2008 and officials say they expect pregnancy complaints to rise even more sharply this year.
Why the dramatic increase? Women have a better understanding of their rights and are more willing to assert them. But there’s something else: It’s the economy. In tough times, complaints of discrimination always increase. This time around, pregnant workers are among those who appear to be taking the hit. But tough times also mean working women are less inclined to just walk away from discriminatory treatment – especially when finding another job isn’t such an easy thing to do.
Their stories are disturbing; even more so around the second Sunday in May.
• Kelly worked part-time for a big-box retailer. When she was six months pregnant with her second child, she was told all part-time workers would have their hours reduced. Later, she learned that the other part-timers, both men, had maintained their hours. She filed a complaint with her HR office. She’s now seeking advice from an attorney.
• Angelika had excellent performance reviews at the pharmaceutical company where she worked – until she announced she was pregnant. Suddenly, she began receiving sub-par evaluations. One hour after returning to work from maternity leave, she was told that she had been removed from all projects and her direct reports had been re-assigned to others. She was given a choice: enter a performance improvement plan or take a buy-out. She filed a state civil rights complaint. It’s been nearly a year. Her case is unresolved.
Thirty years after the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 was signed into law, too many women still face workplace jeopardy. PDA says that an employer cannot refuse to hire a woman because she’s pregnant, cannot fire her because she’s pregnant, and cannot demote her or dock her pay because she’s pregnant. Even asking a woman about her child-rearing plans is illegal if an employer does not do the same for male job applicants or employees.
Last month, responding to the dilemmas pregnant workers, new Moms and other caregivers face, the EEOC released employer best practice guidelines. The agency urged employers to adopt policies that could help them avoid discrimination complaints and see increased benefits to the business bottom line – regardless of the economic climate. The EEOC guidelines encourage employers to recognize that workers with care-giving responsibilities need family-flexible workplace policies.
Paid sick days and paid family leave are critical so workers can care for themselves and their families without losing their pay or their jobs. The U.S. is one of only six countries in the world that doesn’t require paid sick days or family leave. While the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) provides up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for the arrival of a new child or the serious illness of a spouse or parent, it only covers large employers and many workers cannot afford to take it. Nearly 57 million American workers lack even a single paid sick day to care for themselves, and 100 million don’t have a paid sick day to care for a sick child.
Employers must also establish policies that increase workplace flexibility. Inexpensive solutions like accommodating unique family situations by allowing workers to set their starting and ending hours or decide when they take breaks or lunch periods, can make a huge difference for families and have been shown to positively affect worker productivity, as well.
Here’s some advice for workers who are pregnant, just had a child, or feel they may be discriminated against on the job because of their care-giving responsibilities: Know your rights! Document everything and keep a copy of your notes at home. If you belong to a union, talk to your steward. Or, seek help from your HR office. If you suspect discrimination, file a complaint. And speak out to support company and public policies that establish family-flexible workplace standards.
Government must protect workers with family responsibilities from illegal treatment and unfair job loss. But if we’re really sincere about showing Mom our gratitude, let’s get serious about supporting working mothers and mothers-to-be – not just on Mother’s Day, but every day, with workplace policies that provide the real economic security they need.
About the Author: Linda Meric is Executive Director of 9to5, National Association of Women, which helps strengthen women’s ability to achieve economic justice. 9to5 has staffed offices in Wisconsin, Colorado, California and Georgia and activists in cities across the country.