By Allison Stevens
Wednesday, March 7, 2012
Last month, the EEOC gave legal experts an opportunity to tell stories about archaic forms of work discrimination suffered by today's pregnant women and caregivers. Such complaints are jumping, and employers are well advised to learn the laws.
WASHINGTON, D.C. (WOMENSENEWS)--Female firefighters required to take pregnancy tests--and test negative--to be hired.
A pregnant truck driver fired after requesting "light duty" work per her doctor's recommendations.
A pregnant sales clerk told to get an abortion by her supervisor.
Stories from the dark ages of working women's history? Sorry.
This is fresh stuff from last month's long overdue hearing by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). These shocking, blatant attacks on working women are going on more than three decades after passage of the 1978 Pregnancy Discrimination Act, which requires most employers to treat pregnant women the same as other applicants or employees.
They are going on even though women are nearly half the work force and at a time when many women work through, and immediately after, pregnancy.
"The discrimination faced by pregnant workers and caregivers has persisted for decades, despite the laws and court decision that sought to root out such discrimination long ago," testified Judith Lichtman, senior adviser at the National Partnership for Women and Families in Washington, D.C. "Many employers continue to defy their legal obligations with impunity, leaving workers and their families in precarious economic situations at the very time when they are most in need of stability."
Kudos to the EEOC for spotlighting this issue.
Pregnancy discrimination--far from fading out--is becoming more conspicuous.
In the last decade, claims filed with the EEOC by pregnant women have risen sharply, from 4,160 in fiscal year 2000 to 6,119 in fiscal year 2010, says Emily Martin, vice president and general counsel at the National Women's Law Center, the Washington legal advocacy. About 1-in-5 of all charges brought by women, in fact, involve claims of pregnancy discrimination, Lichtman added.
Despite the expansion of mothers and caregivers in the workplace, supervisors and employers are hardly making things any easier.
On top of discrimination and all kinds of other barriers--rigid work schedules, no paid time off to manage family responsibilities, the outrageous cost of quality child care, and the list goes on--mothers face a "wage penalty" of as much as 5 percent per child, says Stephen Benard, a professor of sociology at Indiana University in Bloomington, Ind.
And mothers aren't the only targets. All types of caregivers--whether male or female, whether caring for the young or the old--are reporting discrimination, panelists said.
Take this story from the testimony as another example: A lumber company management trainee asked to take job-protected leave to care for his sick father. His employer warned him not to, and he was fired when he went through with his plan.
Caregivers, fortunately, have at least some friendly laws to back them up.
There's the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, mentioned earlier.
The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 guarantees certain workers 12 weeks of job-protected unpaid leave to care for a new baby, a relative or even themselves in case of illness or injury.
The Affordable Care Act of 2010, aka health reform, requires certain employers to provide reasonable break time and private spaces for nursing mothers to express breast milk for one year after the birth of a child.
All these laws make it easier for caregivers to work and keep supporting their families.
But they are not always enforced. And they're not enough to ensure equality.
"Women will never achieve equality until mothers do, and mothers will never achieve equality while pregnancy and caregiver discrimination remain widespread and startlingly open," Joan Williams, a professor of law and founding director of the Center for WorkLife Law in San Francisco, testified here last month. "The time has come to level the playing field for mothers and to create conditions where fathers can play a more active role in family care."
Women are more responsible than ever for bringing home the bacon--or, to update a tired phrase, the pesto-encrusted chicken.
We are breadwinners in nearly two-thirds of the nation's families. We can't afford to lose our jobs or our income, and we aren't exactly going to stop bearing and raising the younger generation or caring for the older one (although we could use a lot more help doing it).
That's especially true for single mothers and for low-wage earners, whose jobs often lack the kind of flexibility or predictability needed to care for dependents.
Panelists called for solutions such as strong law enforcement, more guidance for employers, more data collection on the problem, and more coordination between the EEOC and the Department of Labor. Let's keep our eyes on all that.
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Allison Stevens is a writer in Washington, D.C. She writes about women's and other issues for a variety of groups and publications.