A Houston, Texas law firm fired a case manager who had worked at the firm for seven years when she became pregnant in 2011—despite numerous pieces of legislation designed to prevent such inequities. The Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 made it illegal to fire a woman because she is pregnant, but employers have found ways to circumvent the law.
Complaints of workplace pregnancy discrimination to the United States’ Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) rose 46 percent between 1997 and 2011.
New research, “Relational Power, Legitimation, and Pregnancy Discrimination,” by Reginald Byron, assistant professor of sociology at Southwestern University and Vincent Roscigno, professor of sociology at The Ohio State University, examines gender roles in the modern workplace and offers evidence that pregnancy discrimination remains a major obstacle for women today.
Skirting the Law
For their study Byron and Roscigno looked at 85 cases of pregnancy based firing discrimination in Ohio from 1986-2003 and 2007-2011. These only include cases handled by the Ohio Civil Rights Commission and do not include statewide or nationwide totals.
Their findings indicate that women continue to be marginalized in the workforce. Pregnancy accounted for 40 percent of all gender-related firing cases, and in 30 percent of these terminations the employer cited “poor performance” as the reason. About 10 percent of employers said “business needs, profit and efficiency” were the cause.
In order to get away with firing pregnant women, employers attack their character and work performance in such a way to excuse the termination. “By vilifying pregnant workers’ performance and dependability while amplifying ostensibly fair organizational policies and business interests, employers attempted to evade being labeled as discriminatory,” according to Byron and Roscigno.
Starting a Family, Ending a Job
In 2010, registered veterinary technician Patty Washington, a respondent in Byron and Roscigno’s study, was let go while on maternity leave. She had her baby in September and began her unpaid six weeks of maternity leave. By the end of the month, a manager called to tell her that she would be considered terminated on November 1.
“I was three weeks into my six weeks of maternity leave. In the employee handbook, it states that, under the maternity leave section, employees receive six weeks unpaid maternity leave,” Washington said.
Her employer ignored claims that her termination was tied to her maternity leave and attacked her performance and worth as an employee: “Patty was released from employment due to poor performance and attitude with doctors, staff, and customers. Repeatedly, she was unprofessional to requests made by doctors and managers. Her poor performance encumbered the work flow of the clinic and caused disruptions with other staff members.” This in contrast to the U.S. law that requires “protected leave” to eligible workers.
A San Diego jury ruled that AutoZone pay out in excess of $185 million, that is correct $185 million, to plaintiff Rosario Juarez, who had held a management position in the company but was demoted after announcing that she was pregnant. According to Juarez’s testimony, her manager told her "Congratulations ... I guess," then added, "I feel sorry for you," shortly after her announcement. The company later fired Juarez.
The Supreme Court Ruling
Last year saw some small steps in the right direction. The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act stalled in Congress, however, many state and local governments took up the fight against discriminatory policies. New York City, Illinois, New Jersey, Maryland, Delaware, West Virginia and Pennsylvania, among others passed laws requiring employers to provide pregnant women with reasonable accommodations at work.
The case of Young vs. United Parcel Service (UPS) captures the plight of women in the workforce. Pregnant Peggy Young’s healthcare provider recommended that she not lift heavy boxes during her pregnancy, creating a conflict for Young who worked at UPS. She asked her higher-ups for reassignment until she gave birth, but was denied.
One of the requirements of Young’s job was that she be able to lift packages up to 70 pounds, but UPS argued that company policy only allowed light-duty assignments for those with disabilities or workplace-related issues. She was not allowed to work until she was free to do so without restrictions, and subsequently lost her medical coverage. UPS eventually altered its policy and the Supreme Court decided in favor of Young.
But the decision is not a total victory for pregnant workers everywhere. Part of Young’s argument centered around the idea that UPS accommodates other workers with non-pregnancy related restrictions such as drivers who are injured on the job; drivers who lose their Department of Transportation certifications and drivers who suffer from a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Young argued that pregnant women should be given the same accommodations as other employees. The Supreme Court didn’t fully buy the argument.
When making its decision in Young vs. UPS, the Supreme Court found that an employee must be able to demonstrate that their employer’s policies place a “significant burden” on pregnant workers and that this case had not raised a “sufficiently strong” justification of those practices. Young must show that she was intentionally discriminated against for being pregnant. The Supreme Court remanded her case to the lower court to determine whether or not that burden was met. But the decision was unclear about how someone in Young’s position, who claims that her co-workers were willing to help her lift any packages outside her doctor-ordered weight limit, goes about proving that burden.
Will you have your job before and after your baby is born? Much depends on the size of your company and the federal and state laws that govern it. Probably the biggest decider is your employer’s attitude toward women in the workplace and mothers who work.
Business Management Daily. “Houston law firm faces pregnancy discrimination suit.” August 10, 2014.
Byron, R., & Roscigno, V. (2014). Relational Power, Legitimation, and Pregnancy Discrimination. Gender & Society, 28(3), 435-462; DOI: 10.1177/0891243214523123
Gao, George and Livingston, Gretchen. “Working while pregnant is much more common than it used to be.” Pew Research Center. March 31, 2015
Morris, L., Calvert, C., & Williams, J. "What Young vs. UPS Means for Pregnant Workers and Their Bosses." Harvard Business Review, March 26, 2015.
Ohio State University. Some employers find excuses to fire pregnant employees. ScienceDaily: February 21, 2014.
Sixel, L. "Pregnancy discrimination persists despite law's expectations." Houston Chronicle: January 7, 2015.
Spiggle, T. "5 Key Moments for Pregnant Workers in 2014." Huffington Post: December 22, 2014.
Spiggle, T. "The Supreme Court Could Soon Make Life Harder for Pregnant Women." Huffington Post: Novermber 20, 2014.
Copyright @ 2015 by Susan Newman