(WOMENSENEWS)--Kathy G was seven months' pregnant with her first child and worried. Her gynecologist had warned her that her baby might have Down's Syndrome, and Kathy needed to have two ultrasound scans each month to monitor the progress of her pregnancy.
After her latest scan, Kathy had just returned to her desk at the California sporting goods company where she worked when the company's director of human resources rang her up. "Kathy," he said, "do you know how much your pregnancy is costing our company in terms of increased medical insurance?"
He proceeded to tell her. "In light of this," he continued, "the company is willing to pay for your abortion."
Kathy's last name has been withheld because she eventually signed a confidentiality agreement with the company she worked for.
For women at work, pregnancy can be a heavy load to bear. Pregnant women in the United States have been fired, demoted, forced to take unpaid leave and put out of the running for the next-rung jobs and onto the lower-paying, lower-status "mommy track."
But few are asked to abort a 7-month-old fetus because their company's health insurance costs are rising, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the federal agency that tracks and defends workers against all forms of workplace discrimination.
The Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 requires companies with more than 15 employees to treat their pregnant employees, whether married or not, the same as any staff member. Many employees and employers, however, are unaware of the law and its protections, says Ann Crittenden, author of the 2001 book "The Price of Motherhood."
"An amazing number of women in the United States think (pregnancy discrimination) is their personal problem," she says. "Women in their 20s and 30s today are just not that politically active. They don't realize that their family issues can be political issues."
Kathy certainly didn't. She had not heard of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act in August 2003, when the human resources director recommended an abortion. Nor had she heard of it in 2006 when she was interviewed for this article.
Kathy complained to her company's legal counsel about the incident and worked out a deal in which she took three months' paid maternity leave--her company offered no paid maternity leave to employees--in exchange for not filing a lawsuit and a promise not to disclose the company's name.
Commission Tracks Discrimination Cases
Because of the deal, Kathy never reported her case to the equal-employment commission.
In 2005, 4,449 pregnancy discrimination charges were filed with the commission or state and local employment agencies around the country. Half were related to unlawful dismissals either during a pregnancy or immediately after returning from maternity leave, says Elisabeth Grossman, the federal commission's regional attorney in New York.
Between 1992 and 2005, the number of pregnancy discrimination charges in the United States went up by 31 percent even while the national birth rate decreased.
The numbers, however, may not reflect the true dimensions of the problem.
"As with all forms of discrimination, a large number of cases are not filed," says Grossman. Complaints are curbed both by women's lack of awareness of the law and their fear of retaliation by supervisors. Complaints are also settled outside of the courts, she says.
The United States has not surveyed working mothers and mothers-to-be about the extent of pregnancy discrimination they face. But a survey in the United Kingdom found that roughly 30,000 pregnant women, or 7 percent of the total number of pregnant women in the work force, lose their jobs every year and five times that number are harassed or suffer financial loss. Only 3 percent of women who encounter problems take their cases to a tribunal.
Those figures are probably the same, if not worse, in the United States, says Lynn Paltrow, founder and executive director of the New York-based National Advocates for Pregnant Women, noting that the U.S. and Australia are the only two industrialized nations that do not require paid maternity leave. (Paltrow is a Women's eNews 21 Leader for the 21st Century 2005.)
"There is a concerted national political effort to keep the attention on hot-button issues like abortion to distract us from the utter lack of protection in the workplace for women who want to carry their pregnancies to term," Paltrow says.
Women Often Unaware of Rights
Kathy says the main reason she didn't take her case to court was financial. "We couldn't afford it," she says simply.
She didn't know that the federal commission investigates claims and, for those with merit and a larger policy impact, provides free legal counsel. The commission's mitigation unit first tries to work out a settlement, but if that is unsuccessful, the commission will represent the employee in federal court without charge.
"If I had known that the EEOC might have taken my case, I would have sued," Kathy says, adding that her company "lucked out" because she was unaware of her rights.
Grossman says that it is "impossible to say" if it would have been better for Kathy to sue or to settle. "It's also not fun to be a plaintiff," Grossman adds. "There is an immediate closure that comes from settling."
After pregnancies end, meanwhile, working mothers cannot count on work conditions to accommodate their new responsibilities, as Kathy's subsequent experience showed.
Her son, Stevie, was born completely healthy and when her maternity leave ended, she returned to work for the Chicago-based sister company of her original employer.
She tried to juggle being a mother and a manager, but it involved waking up at 4:30 in the morning to prepare her baby son for child care; she had to be at work by 8 a.m.
When Kathy asked her supervisors if she could leave early or have an extra hour during lunch, they would agree but grudgingly. As the only female in her department, she felt the pressure to work the same hours as everyone else if she wanted to keep her job. "Asking for more flexible hours was not a reality," she explains.
At the end of the workday, she would rush to pick up her son, getting home by 6:30 p.m. and then spending the rest of her evening looking after him and the house. Her husband was a musician on a cruise ship and he was only in town eight days a month; she was effectively a single mother.
After a year, Kathy threw in the towel and quit her job. She moved in with her father in Illinois and is now a full-time mother, living off the income her husband makes from his job. She does not expect to return to work any time soon.
Anju Mary Paul has an M.A. in journalism from New York University. She is a reporter in New York City.
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