Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Posts Tagged ‘pregnancy discrimination’

A Bill to Make Employers Less Mean to Pregnant Women

Wednesday, October 3rd, 2012

Whatever our political conflicts, we can generally agree that we should treat pregnant women nicely. We don’t hesitate to help them carry their groceries or give them a seat on the bus. Yet when pregnancy comes up as a political issue, lawmakers are far more fixated on what an expecting mom’s womb is doing, rather than her hands–as she slips the check under your plate and hopes for a decent tip–or her mind–as she loses sleep wondering whether she’ll lose her job as her due date nears.

Under current law, it’s easy for bosses to mistreat pregnant women or force them off the job. Yet the men who run Congress are too busy sponsoring anti-abortion bills and slashing social programs, it seems, to protect pregnant women in the workplace. One of the many labor bills left off the congressional radar is the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, (PWFA) which would help prevent pregnant women from being arbitrarily fired and make employers better accommodate them.

According to the National Partnership for Women and Families, the PWFA builds on existing anti-discrimination laws by extending specific protections to pregnant employees. The legislation directs employers to “make reasonable accommodations” for an employee or job applicant’s limitations stemming from “pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions,” unless this would pose “undue hardship” on the business. In addition, as the New York Times’ Motherlode explains, the law would bar employers from “using a worker’s pregnancy to deny her opportunities on the job [or] force her to take an accommodation that she does not want or need.” The bill also directs the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to set regulations for implementing these laws, including “a list of exemplary reasonable accommodations.”

It was introduced earlier this year in the House and this month in the Senate–and not surprisingly, faces pretty bleak odds for being enacted.

The bill expands on legislation passed in the 1970s that protects women from discrimination related to pregnancy. Those earlier policies have been interpreted in such a way as to let companies refuse to make reasonable adjustments for pregnant workers. Similarly, federal and state family-and-medical-leave acts protect women from discrimination related to a seeking medical care, including for pregnancy. But many expecting mothers are left unprotected by these measures; the FMLA for example covers only unpaid leave–not the paid leave time that’s essential to protect the health of workers and their families–and generally only workplaces of 50 or more employees.

The PWFA would not shield expectant women from mistreatment altogether. The “undue burden” clause may give employers some leeway, for instance, to refuse to provide accommodations in job duties or schedules for a mom-to-be. Still, the measure would press firms to make sensible modifications for pregnant workers, such as no longer lifting heavy weights.

As with many women’s rights issues, this is also a matter of economic fairness. About 60 percent of women who gave birth in a given year also worked during that time, according to recent data; many moms are primary breadwinners, too. Making workplaces more pregnancy-friendly isn’t about coddling women; it’s about putting pregnancy on par with other medical or physical challenges workers face. Sarah Crawford, director of workplace fairness at the National Partnership, noted in an email to Working In These Times:

The result for working pregnant women is that they are too often forced to quit or take unpaid leave because their employer denies them reasonable accommodations that are lawfully required for other workers with temporary disabilities.

Losing work a double-blow for pregnant women who need to prepare financially for a new member of the household. Even if they’re not outright fired, Crawford points out, “some employers force pregnant workers into unpaid leave prematurely, which means that women are forced to take a heavy financial hit just as they are about to give birth.”

Moreover, if a pregnant woman is unfairly fired, she may have trouble simply getting hired as a new mom, which some employers may see as a liability. (Not to mention affording quality child care so she can hold onto that new job).

The National Partnership also notes major health implications for women who lose a job during pregnancy, and for their babies: The stress incurred may raise “the risk of having a premature baby and/or a baby with low birth weight.” If she can earn more before having the baby, she can potentially take more time off for maternity leave–meaning more time for bonding, breastfeeding and other essential nurturing tasks for parents that our labor structure tends to ignore.

Ironically, companies themselves suffer when they arbitrarily dismiss workers for pregnancy or childbirth-related reasons, because high workforce turnover is counterproductive in the long run.

Yet many workplaces still make women bear the brunt of the cost of childbearing. So next time you graciously offer your bus seat to a pregnant woman, just think about how our politicians fail to stand up for the labor rights of those who do the work of bringing us into the world.

This blog originally appeared in Working In These Times on September 27, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Michelle Chen work has appeared in AirAmerica, Extra!, Colorlines and Alternet, along with her self-published zine, cain. She is a regular contributor to In These Times’ workers’ rights blog, Working In These Times, and is a member of the In These Times Board of Editors. She also blogs at Colorlines.com. She can be reached at michellechen @ inthesetimes.com.

Catholic Teacher Fired for Having a Baby

Thursday, February 2nd, 2012

Katherine LazarowIn one way or another, we agree to contracts with fixed terms every day: before downloading music on iTunes, buying a cell phone plan, or taking out a student loan. More and more, another area in which the terms of contracts may be non-negotiable is in the area of employment, as individuals desperate for a job agree to an employer’s conditions or risk not being hired. But what if—in addition to a set number of vacation days and an agreement not to publically disparage the employer—potential employees were also asked to commit to other, more fundamental provisions?

In fact, many employees already do.

For example: When Christa Dias of Cincinnati, Ohio, was hired as a part-time technology teacher in 2008 at Holy Family School, and in 2009 at St. Lawrence Catholic School, she had to sign employment contracts agreeing to comply with the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church.

Ms. Dias is not, herself, Catholic.

In October 2010, shortly after Ms. Dias asked for maternity leave, she was fired from both schools for breaching her employment contracts. Her violation? Well, it’s confusing.

Ms. Dias alleges that the schools first informed her she was being dismissed “for becoming pregnant outside of marriage,” but upon realizing that this might violate federal and state anti-discrimination laws, the schools quickly changed their tune. They now claim that they fired her for having undergone artificial insemination, which the Church views as a grave immoral act, and, they say, is in direct violation of her employment agreements, which require employees to “comply with and act consistently in accordance with the stated philosophy and teachings of the Roman Catholic Church,” part 1F. (According to Catechisms 2353, 2366, and 2376, premarital sex and pregnancy outside of marriage are frowned upon, but only artificial insemination is labeled “gravely immoral.”)

In response, Ms. Dias filed an employment discrimination suit against the two schools and the Archdiocese of Cincinnati in the U.S. District Court in April.

Does Ms. Dias have a case? Are these employment contracts enforceable? If a teacher can be fired for engaging in behavior that violates Catholic teachings, can she lose her job for using birth control? What if she has an abortion? How do courts balance employment discrimination laws against the First Amendment’s protection of religious freedom? Questions the press did not tackle. LASIS will.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 forbids employers from firing employees because of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. In 1978, through the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, Congress amended Title VII to include pregnancy discrimination within the definition of sex discrimination; women can’t be fired solely because they’re pregnant.

To make a case of sex discrimination based on pregnancy, a woman must show that she was pregnant, she was qualified for the job, she was fired, and there is a connection between her pregnancy and the termination of her employment. If she makes her case, then the burden shifts to the employer to provide a nondiscriminatory justification for firing her, maybe because she bribed her students, fell asleep in class, or posted inappropriate comments on Facebook. You can figure out how things play out from here. If the employer can’t come up with a legitimate reason for firing the employee, she wins. But if the employer offers a legitimate reason, the employer wins . . . unless the teacher proves that the school’s explanation was merely an excuse to hide its discriminatory conduct.

If she weren’t working for religious institutions, it appears that Ms. Dias would have a clear case of sex discrimination: she was pregnant, by all accounts she performed her job well, she was fired, and there is a connection between her termination and pregnancy.

But Ms. Dias did work for religious institutions, and so we continue our way through this legal maze, and ask: When a religious institution claims that it fired an employee for a religious reason, should courts look into whether the stated reason is just a pretext to hide its discriminatory conduct? This investigation into the employer’s motivation can entangle the government in religious issues, and some courts are not so keen to engage in this inquiry. For example, in 1991 the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held that, under the First Amendment, a court must accept a church’s religious justification for dismissing an employee without question. Fortunately for Ms. Dias, the Sixth Circuit is more willing to explore whether an employer’s stated reason for firing its employee is genuine.

In cases when a school initially told its teacher she was being fired for certain conduct and then changed its reason to a religious one, some courts are more likely to disbelieve the school’s “on-second-thought” religious reason for dismissal. This may bode well for Ms. Dias.

In addition, the provision of Ms. Dias’ employment contract in which she agreed to follow the teachings of the Catholic Church doesn’t necessarily doom her case. Employment contracts and handbooks requiring employees to follow specific church teachings are common in religious schools, but the terms of the contracts are still subject to Title VII. A court will refuse to enforce a contract if an employee can show that it was not applied equally to men and women, in which case the court will view the policy as a ploy to engage in sex discrimination.

In a 1999 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals case, the court explained that for a school to enforce its policy against premarital sex solely by observing the pregnancy of its female teachers would constitute a form of pregnancy discrimination. So Ms. Dias can win if she demonstrates that the schools only enforced this provision against women. The fact that in 2002 the Archdiocese of Cincinnati suspended, rather than fired, a teacher (who was also a priest) accused of sexual misconduct with two male students might weigh in her favor. We think it’s safe to wager that this kind of behavior went against church teachings and would have been prohibited under his employment contract.

Now let’s take things a step or two further. Could an employer of a religious institution regulate whether an employee uses birth control? Has an abortion?

Unlike premarital sex or artificial insemination, which may result in pregnancy, these activities are private matters that are probably difficult for an employer to discover. But suppose a teacher in a Catholic school confides in a coworker that she had an abortion and this coworker tells the school administration. Under Title VII, could the school fire the teacher, if the teacher agreed to these terms when she was hired? If the policy is applied equally to men and women, the answer will most likely be “yes.”

You may be thinking, “But doesn’t the fact that men can’t have abortions automatically make any policy against abortions discriminatory?” Not necessarily (!)

If the policy doesn’t target abortions specifically but rather requires employees to abide by Catholic teachings in general, it’s not discriminatory on its face. So the only way to maintain an employment discrimination claim is to show that, although the policy is “facially neutral,” it’s not applied equally to men and women. This can be demonstrated with proof that a male teacher who also violated the employer’s policy was not fired even though the school was aware of his misconduct as well.

But before you start breaking out the champagne for Ms. Dias: There is an ever-expanding exception to employment discrimination cases against religious institutions that may negate the possibility of Ms. Dias winning her case altogether. In 1972, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals first recognized the “ministerial exception” to Title VII, holding that the Free Exercise and Establishment Clauses of the First Amendment prohibit the government from interfering in a church’s decision to fire a minister. Basically, religious institutions must be free to dismiss ministers for any reason, without worrying whether their decision will subject them to employment discrimination claims.

If the schools can prove that Ms. Dias served as a minister, she will be barred from bringing a Title VII claim. And courts have expanded the ministerial exception to include many employees who aren’t ordained ministers, as long as their primary duties are ministerial.

Unfortunately for Ms. Dias, the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2011 decision in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission broadened the definition of ministers under the exception even further. In that case, the plaintiff, a teacher, instructed her students on mostly secular subjects with the exception of approximately 45 minutes each day, when she taught religion and led the students in prayer. The plaintiff also completed eight college-level theological courses in order to obtain the title of “called” teacher (as opposed to “lay” teacher). According to a unanimous Supreme Court, those activities were sufficient to label the teacher a minister and dismiss the suit based on the ministerial exception to employment discrimination claims.

In her complaint, Ms. Dias states that she worked as a technology coordinator, teaching computer classes and overseeing the computer systems at the schools. There is no indication that she instructed the students on religious topics or led them in prayer. So Ms. Dias will probably not be considered a minister and the school won’t be able to use the ministerial exception as a defense to her discrimination claim.

Regardless of the outcome of her case, Ms. Dias has no regrets about having artificial insemination, and is delighted with her little girl. “I would do it all over again for her,” she said.

This blog originally appeared in Legal as She is Spoke on January 25, 2012. Legal as She is Spoke is a blog produced by New York Law School’s Program in Law and Journalism. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Katherine Lazarow is a staff editor for the New York Law School Law Review, a member of the Justice Action Center, and an intern at the Urban Justice Center’s Mental Health Project. Katherine graduated from McGill University in Montréal with a Bachelor’s in Sociology.

Poor, Pregnant, and Fired: Caregiver Discrimination Against Low-Wage Workers

Friday, April 1st, 2011

bornstein_stephanieNew report documents how low-wage workers are discriminated against at work based on their caregiving responsibilities at home

A new report by U.C. Hastings’ Center for WorkLife Law details the extreme measures to which low-wage workers must go to keep a job and care for their children or elderly family members—and the sometimes shocking discrimination they face at work despite these efforts.

The first of its kind to analyze caregiver discrimination lawsuits filed by low-wage workers, the report—Poor, Pregnant, and Fired: Caregiver Discrimination Against Low-Wage Workers—exposes mistreatment at work around caregiving responsibilities.  The powerful cases profiled in the report, which attracted the attention of the National Law Journal, include:

  • employees encouraged to get abortions or asked about their birth control usage, or sexually harassed because of their roles as caregivers;
  • pregnant workers fired on the spot or immediately after announcing their pregnancies, or banned from certain positions no matter what their individual capabilities;
  • workers routinely denied access to their legal rights, especially to family and medical leave;
  • employees being set up to fail, with unreasonable goals or tasks assigned to them, after caregiving responsibilities are discovered;
  • low-wage men who care for children or elderly parents subjected to extreme gender stereotyping at work; and
  • pregnant women of color denied access to accommodations regularly granted to their pregnant co-workers of a different race.

Even in family emergencies, the report shows, low-wage workers are refused the small kinds of workplace flexibility that are commonplace for middle-wage and professional workers.  One retail worker whose case is profiled in the report was fired for insubordination for carrying a water bottle at work—despite a doctor’s note recommending she do so to treat recurring urinary and bladder infections due to her pregnancy.

Ironically, small changes by employers can make a significant difference in keeping experienced employees in their jobs.  They can also prevent costly liability: several lawsuits profiled resulted in large verdicts, including four with recoveries of between $2.3 and $11.65 million, despite the plaintiffs’ (a housekeeper, a shipping dispatcher, a bakery delivery driver, and a hospital maintenance worker) low wages.

“Caregiver discrimination lawsuits brought by low-wage workers document clearly that work-family conflict is not just a professional women’s problem.  In fact, it’s most acute and extreme for low-income families,” said study author Stephanie Bornstein, Deputy Director of the Center for WorkLife Law.  “To help families move out of poverty, we can’t just focus on ‘fixing’ the worker.  We also need to look at how caregiver discrimination in low-wage jobs undercuts economic stability.  Discrimination not only hurts workers and their families; it leads to high turnover and legal liability for employers.”

Another case profiled in the report is that of a pregnant woman who was forced out of her retail sector job onto unpaid leave despite her desire to work as long as possible while pregnant.  Her supervisor had allowed her perform all of her job tasks while avoiding heavy lifting, and she was working successfully.  Yet several weeks later, when her doctor sent a letter to the company’s HR office to cement this arrangement, she was immediately sent home and told that she could not be accommodated—in violation of California law.

A soon-to-be single mother, the woman was “trying to do the best she could for her baby,” and was confused as to why she was being sent home when she wanted to work, said Jamie Dolkas, Staff Attorney at Equal Rights Advocates in San Francisco, who represents the woman.  “As a low-wage worker, she was really disenfranchised….[T]hey didn’t take the time to explain to her what her rights or options were—they just gave her something in writing that essentially said we can’t accommodate you, go home,” explained Dolkas.

The report profiles 50 cases—selected from among hundreds identified by Center for WorkLife Law research—of low-wage workers who experienced discrimination at work based on their efforts to be both a good worker and a good parent or family member.

The Center for WorkLife Law is a nonprofit research and advocacy organization that works with employees, employers, attorneys, unions, and policymakers to fuel social and organizational change around work-life issues.  The Center is part of the University of California, Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco.

About the Author: Stephanie Bornstein is an employment attorney and Deputy Director of WLL. Prior to joining WLL, she worked as a staff attorney at Equal Rights Advocates (ERA), a public interest law center focused on gender discrimination in employment and education. At ERA, Bornstein represented plaintiffs in individual and class action employment matters, specializing in pregnancy discrimination and family and medical leave. She was also among a small group of advocates to help author and enact California’s Paid Family Leave insurance program, the nation’s first comprehensive paid leave law. In addition, Bornstein worked as a legal editor of employment law products at Nolo Press, a leading publisher of legal books for non-lawyers.

It's Nothing New: Male Dominated Professions Foster Culture Of Sex Discrimination

Tuesday, April 6th, 2010

Bankers and Police Officers Charged With Gender Discrimination, Sexual Harassment and Retaliation

Two vastly different professions – banking and law enforcement – yet they share something in common and that is a culture of gender discrimination.

It’s the same stuff that’s been going on for decades in spite of federal laws which make sex discrimination, pregnancy discrimination, and sexual harassment illegal in the workplace. I have heard similar complaints from women for close to 30 years. That’s one of the reasons why I think it’s important to to spread the word about some courageous women  who are out there fighting for their rights.

Here are some of the cases that made the news.

Citigoup and Goldman Sachs Accused Of Discrimination Against Mothers

Two women filed gender discrimination cases against Wall Street banks claiming they were discriminated against after taking time off to have children.

According to ABC news, Charlotte Hanna, a former Golden Sachs VP in the HR department claimed that she was demoted and moved from her private office into a cubicle after the birth of her first child.

She was then fired while she was on maternity leave with her second child. Hanna was told that her position was eliminated, but leaned that another employee was hired to take over her duties.

Dorly Hazan-Amir complained about a long standing “boys club” culture at Citigroup’s asset finance division since the beginning of her employment. When she got pregnant, things got worse.

One manager asked whether she planned to be a “career mom” or “mom mom.” Another told her if she planned to continue working, she would have to put her career first and family second. Her pregnancy became the butt of office jokes.

Wall Street has had an ongoing problem with sex discrimination. Morgan Stanley settled two class action lawsuits brought by thousands of employees for more than $100 million dollars in 2004 and 2007. Smith Barney paid out $33 million in settlement of a case two years ago.

Syracuse Police Officer Gets $400,000 Jury Award

Last month, a New York jury found in favor of Officer Katherine Lee on her claim of sex discrimination and retaliation against the Syracuse police department. It was the third significant verdict against the police department for discrimination, sexual harassment and retaliation of female officers in the last ten months.

Sgt. Therese Lore was awarded $500,000 by a jury in May, and Officer Sonia Dotson was awarded $450,000 last month.

Lee, a police officer for 14 years claimed she was repeatedly subjected to sexual harassment, and denied equal pay and promotions to her male counterparts.

Lee claimed that male officers frequently watched pornographic movies at the workplace and made sexually derogatory remarks about women. When she complained about male officers’ behavior, the department would conduct sham investigations, and then accuse her of misconduct for making those complaints.

A similar lawsuit was filed last week by Maj. Martha Helen Haire, a 22-year veteran of the LSU Police Department.

She sued the university claiming she was denied the position of chief of police, for which she was clearly qualified, because she is a woman.

Haire also claimed that she was harassed on account of her gender and “subjected to illegal retaliation/reprisal on account of her whistle-blowing activities consisting of protesting and opposing gender-based discrimination in the workplace.’”

Retaliation for complaining about discrimination and opposing discriminatory practices is illegal under Title VII.

It’s been decades since this kind of conduct has been declared illegal throughout the country yet sadly, the culture of discrimination and harassment in male dominated professions is awfully slow to change.

Images: corporette.com farm4.static.flickr.com

*This post originally appeared in Employee Rights Post on April 4, 2010. Reprinted with permission from the author.

About the Author: Ellen Simon: is recognized as one of the leading  employment and civil rights lawyers in the United States.She offers legal advice to individuals on employment rights, age/gender/race and disability discrimination, retaliation and sexual harassment. With a unique grasp of the issues, Ellen’s a sought-after legal analyst who discusses high-profile civil cases, employment discrimination and woman’s issues. Her blog, Employee Rights Post has dedicated readers who turn to Ellen for her advice and opinion. For more information go to www.ellensimon.net.

A Better Balance: The Work and Family Legal Center

Tuesday, February 2nd, 2010

EJW profile pictureA woman who was eight months pregnant was asked to leave her job because, according to her boss, her pregnancy “didn’t look right for the company.” Another woman suspected she was not hired after explaining to her prospective employer that the gap on her resume was because of time she needed to care for her ailing mother. A man was fired after asking for a few extra days off of work to care for his wife who was recovering from surgery.

Most American workers have families to care for and most American families rely on parents and others to provide essential income. Yet our workplaces have not caught up to this reality and often subject workers to unfair treatment because of their family responsibilities. Too many working parents and caregivers, especially those with limited income, lack access to lawyers and know little about their workplace rights. At the same time, studies have indicated that nearly one in five employers is out of compliance with the Family and Medical Leave Act, the only federal law designed specifically to address the issue of work/family integration. Workers with families need assistance navigating the legal labyrinth of the workplace when they encounter discrimination or are faced with a family health crisis.

A Better Balance: The Work and Family Legal Center and Outten & Golden LLP, the employee-rights law firm, are teaming up to help. A Better Balance is a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting equality and expanding choices for men and women at all income levels so they may care for their families without sacrificing their economic security. Outten & Golden LLP, is a national preeminent employment law firm dedicated to empowering employees and protecting their civil rights in the workplace. It is also one of the first and only firms in the nation to have a practice area dedicated to Family Responsibilities Discrimination.

Together, these two New York City-based organizations have launched a free legal clinic to provide information and advice to workers with family responsibilities about their workplace rights. The clinic grows out of a project at A Better Balance that was created to extend work/family advocacy to a segment of the workforce that faces stubbornly inflexible work hours and whose economic security is easily endangered by a family crisis. These workers are often forced to choose between their jobs and their family’s well being; for them, a sick child or family emergency can mean the difference between just scraping by and tumbling into poverty. No one should have to face such an impossible choice.

As part of the Families @ Work project, employees can now access a Guide to Your Rights at Work for workers with family responsibilities, which outlines common questions and answers about working while pregnant and while caring for loved ones. Attorneys from A Better Balance and Outten & Golden LLP are also conducting trainings for workers, lawyers, social workers and others to help them understand the scope of the law and the protections available for families at work. Individuals in the New York City area who suspect they may have been treated unfairly at work because they are pregnant, or had to take time off to care for a sick child or other relative, or for any other family-related reason, are encouraged to call the Families @ Work Legal Clinic hotline at 212-430-5982 to set up an appointment with a lawyer.

About the Author: Phoebe Taubman is an Equal Justice Works Fellow with A Better Balance: The Work and Family Legal Center, which fights to give American workers the time and flexibility they need to care for their families without risking their economic security.  She leads a project to expand work/family advocacy to low-income New Yorkers by empowering and educating them about their rights to be free from workplace discrimination based on caregiving responsibilities.  Prior to joining A Better Balance, Phoebe served as a law clerk to the Honorable Faith S. Hochberg of the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey in Newark and as a litigation associate at Mayer Brown in New York City.  Phoebe is a member of the New York City Bar Association’s Committee on Women in the Profession.  She is a graduate of Harvard University and of Georgetown University Law Center.

Rising Hope for Women

Friday, February 6th, 2009

Talk about the audacity of hope – who could have imagined that barely a week into office, President Obama would sign the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and that the Supreme Court would unanimously rule that employees who report discriminatory treatment during an internal investigation are protected from retaliation by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act in Crawford v. Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County, Tennessee?

But will the winds of change continue to blow when the Supreme Court considers AT&T v. Hulteen, the last case heard in 2008?

AT&T v. Hulteen raises the question: Does the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 prohibit AT&T from giving smaller pensions to women who took pregnancy leave before its passage than it gives to other retirees with the same length of service? The Pregnancy Discrimination Act amended Title VII to require that “women affected by pregnancy … shall be treated the same for all employment-related purposes, including receipt of benefits under fringe benefit programs, as other persons … similar in their ability or inability to work.”

Before 1978, it was standard practice in the telecommunications industry to treat pregnant employees differently from employees who were temporarily disabled for other reasons. Company policy forced pregnant women like Noreen Hulteen to go on leave while they were still physically able to work, and new mothers were not guaranteed immediate return to work after recovery from childbirth. Their leaves were classified as “personal” rather than “disability,” depriving them of the full seniority accrual enjoyed by employees disabled for reasons other than pregnancy. They were not permitted to shift to disability leave even if an unrelated disability extended their absence from work.

Non-pregnant employees who anticipated or suffered a period of disability were not subject to forced leave or delayed return. They received full seniority credit for the entire leave period. Upon return to work, non-pregnant employees retained the “net credited service” date that they had at the outset. By contrast, employees returning from pregnancy leave had their dates of hire “adjusted,” reducing their seniority by all but 30 days of the leave’s duration. Hulteen lost 210 days of service credit under this regime.

After the act went into effect, AT&T eliminated its discriminatory leave policies, but not the discriminatory service credit adjustments created by those policies. AT&T continued to use pregnancy adjusted net credited service dates to calculate retirement benefits after the Pregnancy Discrimination Act went into effect, and has been insisting on its legal right to do so, with mixed success, for 30 years.

Enter the Supreme Court. Twice, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals held that AT&T’s conduct violates Title VII. The first time the Supreme Court denied certiorari. The second time, AT&T persuaded the court to take the case. At oral argument, its gamble appeared to have paid off.

In most press reports following the oral argument, the smart money was on victory for AT&T, and it was not hard to see why. Justice Anthony Kennedy is often the crucial swing vote on issues that divide liberals and conservatives. He seemed deeply troubled by the idea that a ruling in favor of AT&T’s retiring mothers could possibly, in the current economic climate, reduce pension funds available for everyone.

Still, reading tea leaves is a perilous game, and as inaugural afterglow fades, the Ledbetter Act and the Crawford opinion give rise to cautious optimism that the court’s decision in Hulteen will align more with Congress’ purpose in enacting the Civil Rights Act of 1964, than with its panic in enacting the Troubled Asset Relief Program. Here’s why.

First, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act resolved a key issue in the case – timeliness – in Hulteen’s favor. In the words of the act: “[A]n unlawful employment practice occurs, with respect to discrimination in compensation … when an individual is affected by application of a discriminatory compensation decision or other practice.” Hulteen’s claim is timely under the Ledbetter Act because she filed a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission at the time AT&T awarded her a smaller pension than retirees with the same length of service.

Second, last week’s Crawford decision inspires hope that the justices will view the claim that Title VII permits AT&T to pay reduced pensions to women who took pre-Pregnancy Discrimination Act pregnancy leave with a skeptical eye. In Crawford, the employer argued that Title VII protects an employee who complains about discrimination on her own initiative, but not one who reports the same discrimination in the same words when her boss asks a question. Justice David Souter’s opinion rejected the employer’s position as not only wrong, but “freakish.” This is not language you hear every day from the Supreme Court.

Well, what could be more freakish than arguing that Title VII permits you to continue to calculate pensions using a discriminatory system that would violate the Pregnancy Discrimination Act if adopted today, just because it was in use when the act went into effect?

Twenty years ago, the court knew what to do with a similar argument. Speaking for a unanimous Supreme Court in Bazemore v. Friday, 478 U.S. 385 (1986), Justice William Brennan wrote: “A pattern or practice that would have constituted a violation of title VII, but for the fact that the statute had not yet become effective, became a violation upon title VII’s effective date, and, to the extent an employer continued to engage in that act or practice, it is liable under that statute.”

To be sure, Bazemore concerns paychecks, whereas Hulteen concerns pension benefits, but the fundamental equity principle is identical: Title VII was enacted to eliminate discrimination against everyone on the basis of protected status, not just those fortunate enough to enter the workforce after its effective date. Treating newly hired black employees (or newly pregnant women) the same as similarly situated others will not satisfy that statutory goal if the victims of pre-act discrimination remain in its thrall.

AT&T argues that imposing liability will upset its “settled expectation” that women who took pre-Pregnancy Discrimination Act pregnancy leaves would not receive equal benefits upon retirement. But Bazemore was decided in 1986. AT&T has already received a 30-year economic windfall by not changing its pension benefit calculation system. Now it’s time for justice.

In the words of Obama when signing the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act: “[M]aking our economy work means making sure that it works for everybody; that there are no second-class citizens in our workplaces….Ultimately, equal pay isn’t just an economic issue … it’s a question of who we are – and whether we’re truly living up to our fundamental ideals.”

And if AT&T needs a bailout, well, the Treasury Department is right down the street.

About the Author: Charlotte Fishman is a San Francisco employment attorney, a regular columnist on employment discrimination and women’s issues, and author of the National Employment Lawyers Association’s amicus brief supporting Noreen Hulteen et al. in the U.S. Supreme Court.

This article originally appeared in the San Francisco and Los Angeles Daily Journal on February 5, 2009. Reprinted with permission of the author.

No Supreme Court Bail-Out for AT&T!

Friday, September 26th, 2008

As federal authorities scramble to rescue the nation’s financial institutions from the consequences of their reckless greed, AT&T seeks a bail-out of its own. In AT&T v. Hulteen, the telecommunications giant asks the United States Supreme Court to rescue it from the consequences of its reckless choice of pregnancy discrimination over basic fairness.

AT&T hopes to piggyback on the Court’s notorious Ledbetter v. Goodyear decision to avoid paying retirees who took pregnancy leave in the 1960’s and 70’s the same pensions as retirees who took disability leave for other reasons.

By now, most everyone in America knows the story of Lilly Ledbetter. In a 5-4 decision the Supreme Court refused to apply the “paycheck” rule previously articulated in Bazemore v. Friday (Each week’s paycheck that delivers less to a black than to a similarly situated white is a wrong actionable under Title VII, even if rooted in a practice that pre-dated Title VII.) Instead, it held that because Lilly Ledbetter didn’t challenge the initial decision to pay her less than male supervisors, she is forever barred from challenging ongoing salary discrimination.

Lilly Ledbetter, meet Noreen Hulteen.

Before 1978, it was standard practice in the telecommunications industry to treat pregnant employees differently from employees who were temporarily disabled for other reasons. Company policy forced pregnant women to take “personal” leave while they were still able to work. It did not permit them to accrue “service credit” while on leave, and upon return, credited them with only 30 days of “service” regardless of the actual duration of the leave. Upon return to work, new mothers had their “date of hire” moved forward – as if they had joined the company later than their actual first day of employment. Noreen Hulteen lost 210 days of service credit under this systemic practice.

By contrast, employees temporarily disabled by conditions other than pregnancy continued to accrue service credit while on leave, and retained full seniority when they returned to work. AT&T tracked and perpetuated this disparate treatment by a device known as the adjusted NCS [“net credited service”] date.

In 1978, Congress passed the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) reaffirming that “women affected by pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions shall be treated the same for all employment-related purposes, including receipt of benefits under fringe benefit programs, as other persons not so affected but similar in their ability or inability to work.”

After the PDA went into effect, the company changed its leave policies, treating future pregnancies just like other temporary disabilities. It did not, however, restore the forfeited service credit to women who had been discriminated against in the past. Nor did it discontinue reliance on their discriminatory NCS dates as the basis for distributing benefits such as job bidding, shift preference, layoffs, eligibility for early retirement, and pension levels.

On June 1, 1994, Hulteen retired. She had been continuously employed since January 1, 1964, but AT&T calculated her pension using the “adjusted” NCS date of August 3, 1965. Hulteen filed a timely EEOC charge challenging the pension benefit calculation. The EEOC found reasonable cause to believe that AT&T had engaged in class-wide discrimination.

No one, not even AT&T, can deny that the use of discriminatory NCS dates to reduce the pension benefits of women who were prevented from accruing service credit during their pregnancies is unfair, but is it illegal? Well, it’s not as if AT&T had no clue. Title VII’s prohibition against sex discrimination was enacted in 1964. The EEOC issued guidelines mandating equal treatment of pregnancy “in written and unwritten employment practices involving … the accrual of seniority” in 1972. These were cited with approval by the United States Supreme Court in Nashville Gas Co. v. Satty, striking down a discriminatory leave policy that denied accumulated seniority to employees returning from pregnancy leave. And in 1991, the Ninth Circuit, in Pallas v. Pacific Bell explicitly held that using adjusted NCS dates to calculate retirement eligibility violates Title VII.

Given this history, AT&T’s continued use of tainted NCS dates seems as reckless as the behavior of the players in the mortgage crisis. The twin reeds upon which it attempts to justify its behavior are (1) Treating pregnancy differently than other temporary disabilities was legal before 1979, so it’s still legal to use Hulteen’s adjusted NCS dates to pay her a lesser pension than retirees with the same length of service; (2) Even if it wasn’t legal to use the NCS after 1979, Noreen Hulteen waited too long to complain.

AT&T is counting on the Supreme Court to “do another Ledbetter.” But I am not so sure.

Perhaps chastened by the Congressional and editorial outrage that greeted Ledbetter, the Court will recognize that immunizing systemic violators undermines enforcement of Title VII, reaffirm the principle set forth in Bazemore v. Friday and hold that employers who perpetuate previously accepted discrimination may be held to account for their intransigence.

Or not. AT&T could be in line for a “bail-out,” leaving its retiring mothers to foot the bill.

Come next Labor Day, we’ll know the answer. By all accounts, it’s going to be an interesting year.

About the Author: Charlotte Fishman is a San Francisco employment discrimination attorney, and Executive Director of Pick Up the Pace. She is currently drafting an amicus brief in support of the respondent in AT&T v. Hulteen.

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