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Unhappy Mother's Day: Thousands fired due to pregnancy

By Viji Sundaram - New America Media | Last updated: May 12, 2011 - 10:17:57 AM

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SAN FRANCISCO - Christina didn't think that getting pregnant would cost her job.

Three months into her pregnancy, in 2008, the 27-year-old Filipina told her boss at a San Francisco-based fruit and vegetable company about her condition. She asked for no special treatment, but was taken aback by his response.

“That's not going to work,” he reportedly told her. “We'll have to discuss this later.”

The next business day, Christina was called into a meeting and terminated from her job as a telephone operator with two weeks' notice. She had worked for the small company for only eight weeks. Her boss told her, “We can't afford to cover you when you go on leave.”

She recalled, “He didn't know my due date and I never said that I needed any special leave.” At the suggestion of her husband, she filed a complaint with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing.

Christina's situation is not uncommon. A recent report by researchers at the University of California's Hastings College of the Law, in San Francisco, found that low-wage workers face a disproportionately high rate of workplace discrimination when they become pregnant.

“We have 2,600 cases in our database,” said the report's author, Stephanie Bornstein of the law school's Center for WorkLife Law. The study is titled, “Poor, Pregnant and Fired: Caregiver Discrimination Against Low-Wage Workers.”

Many pregnant women don't understand their legal protections at work, the report found. Frequently women were never told of their right to take medical and family leave, or if they did try to exercise their rights, their employers interferred.

In some cases, supervisors gave mothers-to-be assignments that were nearly impossible to accomplish, in an attempt to force them to quit.

Some supervisors were so intrusive, Ms. Bornstein said, that they told their employees to get abortions. One woman was fired for breastfeeding her premature baby during her work breaks (her partner brought the infant to the workplace).

Joan C. Williams, the WorkLife Law Center's founder, said low-wage parents of both sexes generally have much less job flexibility than middle- and higher-income earners, male or female.

Low-income parents often can't afford daycare, so they must tag-team with spouses or grandparents to cover childcare, sometimes working multiple jobs to make ends meet.

Immigrant women are especially vulnerable to pregnancy discrimination, said Jamie Dolkas, an attorney with Equal Rights Advocates, a public interest law center in San Francisco. “Employers know they need their jobs very badly.”

To make matters worse, low-wage workers frequently have trouble finding attorneys to defend their rights and fight discrimination because the cases are too hard to prove or result in relatively small settlements.

California's laws more generous

Yet federal law—including the Family Medical Leave Act and Pregnancy Discrimination Act—offers employment protection to pregnant women or new parents. Both statutes require an employer to treat a pregnant worker in the same manner as an employee who, for example, was temporarily disabled by a broken arm, a back injury, or a heart attack.

Unlike most other states, California also has laws on the books to protect workers taking pregnancy or disability leave. Under the California Family Rights Act, an employee at a company with 50 or more workers can take up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave a year to care for a new baby or a seriously ill child, spouse or parent with a serious health condition. To qualify, however, the employee must have worked at least 1,250 hours in the previous 12 months.

The state's Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) goes even further, said Sharon Terman, an attorney with the Legal Aid Society-Employment Law Center in San Francisco, because it applies to women who work in small companies with five or more employees. It provides up to four months of unpaid pregnancy and/or maternity leave, and there is no waiting period before a worker becomes eligible.

The FEHA also requires employers to make “reasonable accommodation” for pregnant workers—for example, frequent bathroom breaks or limits on lifting heavy objects.

“Some employers may not know about the law, and others may know about it but not educate those who supervise employees,” Ms. Bornstein said. “Employers need to educate their frontline supervisors on how to avoid caregiver discrimination.”

At age 17, Nikole, who like Christina did not want her last name used, became pregnant while working as a representative for a company that creates product displays for major retailers.

She worked at various locations, often at night, physically building the displays and lighting for the retailer.

Because the job involved some lifting, Nikole told her supervisor about her condition when she just two months pregnant, asking if she could be given other tasks. Her supervisor told her that was fine, since her job involved many other tasks.

For a few weeks things went smoothly. Then, after a medical checkup, Nikole's doctor faxed her boss a note saying she couldn't lift more than 20 pounds.

Soon after, Nikole was sent home and placed on unpaid leave. A few weeks later, she received an e-mail from her company stating that it couldn't accommodate her doctor's request because heavy lifting was an “essential function” of her job, and that she was to remain on unpaid leave for the rest of her pregnancy.

“We get a lot of calls from people like Nikole,” Atty. Dolkas said, who tried unsuccessfully to intervene on her behalf with the company before filing a complaint with the state Department of Fair Employment and Housing “Hers is a horrible situation to be in —single mom, no income and very young.” The case is pending.

As for Christina, she was luckier, winning an undisclosed settlement from her former employer, thanks to Ms. Terman's help. After three years of searching, she landed a job last month with a company in Hayward, Calif.

She said she advises her friends to familiarize themselves with company policies early on.

“They need to know what they are entitled to, otherwise they may go through what I did,” she said.

To reach the work and family project of the Legal Aid Society-Employment Law Center, call 1-800-880-8047.

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