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Gaining a Baby, Losing a Career

Pregnancy bias reports are up 10% in a year, but it's unclear if there are more cases or just more complaints. Trend may be linked to economy.

October 05, 2003|Adam Geller | Associated Press Writer

NEW YORK — When Elizabeth Jaquith felt the sharp pain of contractions 10 weeks before her due date, a doctor instructed her to stay home for the rest of her pregnancy.

Jaquith already worked from home as a saleswoman for a hotel in Atlantic City, N.J. She figured that she'd be able to continue in her job -- until she called her supervisor. A day later, she was fired.

"I'll never forget that day because it was devastating," Jaquith said, recalling the January 2002 dismissal. "I lost my career."

Her account typifies a surge in complaints by working women who charge employers with discriminating against them because they were pregnant.

Pregnancy discrimination complaints nationwide jumped 10% last year to more than 4,700 cases, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. That continues a long-term trend, with such complaints up nearly 40% since 1992.

The increase is partly a symptom of widespread layoffs, according to lawyers, enforcement officials and workers' advocates. Job cuts also appear to have fueled a rise in other discrimination complaints, like those of age bias, which increased 14% last year.

But other forces may be at work.

"It's really a confluence of factors coming together," said David Grinberg, spokesman for the EEOC. "More women are in the workplace every year. More women are assuming higher levels of authority, and there is increased sensitivity to these work / life issues, and more women are aware of their rights."

Whether employers are discriminating more in a downturn is hard to say.

Eve Markewich, a New York attorney who represents employers in discrimination cases, rejects the suggestion that pregnancy bias is increasing.

Instead, increased complaints reflect the attitudes of a new generation of working women, higher paid and better educated than their predecessors, with more at stake when they lose a job. Workers are also increasingly conscious of their ability to sue for perceived discrimination, she said.

The shaky economy has exacerbated the situation as companies try to cope with pressures that sometimes force them to choose which employees to keep on the payroll, said Will Hannum, an Andover, Mass., attorney who represents employers in labor matters.

"If you're pregnant or if you're disabled, you've got rights," he said. "But as an employer, trying to respect those rights while running a business can be a real challenge, and it may be that employers are getting tripped up on that."

Worker advocates see it differently. Women may be more willing to use the law, but only because employers continue to ignore the law and act based on outdated notions about a mother's ability to do a job, they say.

"The root cause sort of stems from long-standing stereotypes about women and particularly about mothers in the workforce, and I think those stereotypes die very hard," said Jocelyn Frye, director of legal and public policy at the National Partnership for Women & Families, an advocacy group.

Through the 1940s, many school districts barred women from continuing as teachers once they married. As late as the 1970s, some districts did not allow pregnant women to teach. It was much the same at many airlines, which actively discouraged female flight attendants from staying on the job once they were older or pregnant.

Bias was less explicit in other professions, but the message was still clear, labor historians say.

"There was just this sense that when you got pregnant, you just had to leave your job," said Dorothy Sue Cobble, a professor of labor studies and history at Rutgers University. "It's amazing how much things have changed."

The issue reached a boil in 1976, when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of General Electric Co. in a suit filed by female employees. They had challenged GE's policy of providing disability pay to workers sidelined by sickness or injury -- while explicitly exempting pregnancy.

Widespread criticism of the ruling helped spur Congress to pass the Pregnancy Discrimination Act in 1978, which bars employer prejudice in hiring, firing or treatment of women who are expecting a child. The law applies to companies with at least 15 workers.

Some experts say blatant discrimination has given way to more subtle bias, with pressure still on women not to have children if they want to pursue careers.

The rise in formal complaints to the EEOC is "probably the tip of the iceberg," Frye said, since most workers who believe they've been discriminated against keep quiet because such cases can be expensive to pursue, difficult to prove and emotionally draining.

But more women like Jaquith are coming forward. Her allegations are contained in a lawsuit that the EEOC filed in early September against the Tropicana Resort & Casino, owned by Aztar Corp.

The hotel would not comment on the case because it is a matter of pending litigation, Nicholas Moles, vice president and corporate counsel, said through a spokeswoman.

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