Pregnancy bias is alive and well in America

Feb. 15, 2012 at 2:24 PM ET

The number of pregnancy discrimination charges increased about 15 percent in the last 10 years to 5,797 last year.

It’s hard to imagine we still have to tell employers this today, but here goes: Pregnancy discrimination is illegal.

While it may sound obvious to some, blatant pregnancy bias is still alive and well in the workplace. A pregnant woman who applied for a job at a Subway franchise in Phoenix was told by a manager “we can’t hire you because you’re pregnant.” Last month, she won punitive damages against the employer.

It’s just one example of the types of flagrant pregnancy discrimination that the federal government is trying to stop.

“A few employers have forgotten, or never learned, that it’s against the law to discriminate against women because of pregnancy,” David Lopez, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's general counsel, said during a public meeting before the EEOC commissioners Wednesday.

It’s unlawful, he stressed, to deprive a pregnant woman "the opportunity to sustain herself or her family based on stereotypical assumptions” that she won’t be as dedicated to her employers as a man or a woman who isn't pregnant.

The number of pregnancy discrimination charges increased about 15 percent in the last 10 years to 5,797 last year. That's down slightly from 2010's total claims of 6,119, according to the EEOC.

While the EEOC is doing outreach to employers so they understand the law, the agency is also using the big-stick approach.

The EEOC has increased the number of cases it has filed against employers when it comes to pregnancy bias, Lopez said, reaching 20 cases last year, inching up from 19 in 2010.

He pointed to a $1.64 million settlement reached with Akal Security Inc., the largest provider of contract security services to the federal government, in 2010. The agency claimed Akal had a national policy “of forcing its pregnant employees, working as contract security guards on U.S. Army bases, to take leave and discharging them because of pregnancy.”

Such conduct, the agency maintained, violated the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, which prohibits gender discrimination in employment, including pregnancy discrimination.

This type of bias can hit low-wage workingwomen the hardest, said Sharon Terman, senior staff attorney in the gender equity program at The Legal Aid Society Employment Law Center, who spoke at the EEOC event.

“We’ve heard from many women who were fired immediately upon announcing their pregnancy and whose employers explicitly told them the pregnancy was the reason,” she explained.

Low-income women who become pregnant, she continued, are routinely denied minor workplace accommodations that would help them continue working. A common example of accommodations would be allowing a worker to sit on a stool instead of standing all day, or letting her carry a water bottle.

She offered one case of a pregnant janitor who was fired via text message by her boss after she told him her obstetrician was late for her appointment.

Many poorer workers also don’t have paid sick days, she pointed out. The United States is one of the only industrialized nations that does not mandate paid sick days for employees. While some states have passed laws requiring some paid sick time, the majority of workers nationally are not covered by such legislation.

Although many employers have anti-discrimination policies, it still occurs. Employment attorney Sara Begley said, “Unenlightened managers who are simply focused on getting the job done may violate a pregnant employee's protected rights by taking adverse action for taking maternity leave, not provide salary increases or bonuses to employees on leave, assume an employee will not return post leave and transfer her duties to another employee, assume an employee will be on Mommy Track post maternity leave."

Such outdated assumptions, she added, “can and must be remedied by training and enforcement of applicable policies."

The biggest “knowledge gap” when it comes to the law, she added, appears to be with smaller firms who just don’t have adequate training.  

While reaching out and educating employers is important, said EEOC Commissioner Stuart Ishimaru, he shared his frustration that so little has changed in the 35 years since the Pregnancy Discrimination Act was passed.

“Why have we missed the boat?” he asked the panelists assembled at the hearing. Why, he added, does pregnancy bias persist? “It’s a puzzle to me.”

Judy Lichtman, senior advisor to the National Partnership for Women and Families, who spoke at the hearing, said it was all about long-standing stereotypes, and not just regarding pregnancy but for caregiving too. Our society doesn’t value people with family responsibilities, she said. “What are our real obligations to change an engrained paradigm?”