Pregnant women filing more bias issues

Complaints surged 14% last year; up 40% over decadeSUE SHELLENBARGER Wall Street Journal

A spike to record levels in pregnancy-discrimination complaints to regulators suggests more women are speaking up about suspected workplace bias.

Pregnancy-bias complaints recorded by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission surged 14 percent last year to 5,587, up 40 percent from a decade ago and the biggest annual increase in 13 years.

And that “may be only the tip of the iceberg,” an EEOC spokesman says. The agency also received 20,400 pregnancy-bias inquiries at its call center last year, the center’s first full year of operation; that doesn’t include thousands more walk-ins asking about the same topic at fair-employment offices. An advocacy group, 9to5, National Association of Working Women, also is seeing an increase in pregnancy-bias calls on its hot line.

The groundswell reflects both changing demographics and a new activism among mothers. It also shows that even now, 30 years after passage of the federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act, there is still confusion about what protections it provides. “I thought we were protected,” said an advertising executive during a recent gathering of 100 working mothers. “Then I find out we can be fired while we’re pregnant, employers can refuse to hire us — what exactly are our rights?”

While employers can indeed fire, lay off or refuse to hire pregnant women, they can’t single them out for worse treatment — and they must be able to prove they held men to the same standards or asked male job candidates comparable questions. “Any action involving a pregnant woman has to be well-documented and well-justified,” says Jocelyn Frye of the National Partnership for Women & Families, an advocacy group. “Nobody should be finding out on maternity leave that she has performance issues.”

Many women who bring complaints are surprised to learn that they don’t have special protection from adverse treatment. One manager for a publishing company thought she was being discriminated against when her employer fired her for poor performance while pregnant, says Kimberlie Ryan, a Denver employment attorney. In fact, the manager couldn’t prove her bosses knew she was pregnant when they decided to fire her, says Ryan. To succeed in a claim, a woman generally must be able to prove an adverse action was motivated by her pregnancy or her status as a mother.

Many hot line callers also don’t realize they aren’t entitled by federal law to paid childbirth leave, says Melissa Josephs of Women Employed, an advocacy group that runs a hot line. (The federal family-leave law only guarantees covered employees unpaid leave; just California and Washington mandate paid leave.)

While a pregnant woman can legitimately be caught up in a downsizing, employers can’t invent one as a pretext. A pregnant Denver human-resources manager was laid off and told she was part of a reduction-in-force, Ryan says. But after it became clear that the RIF totaled one person — the pregnant woman — the employer settled bias charges for a generous sum, she says.

Employers can’t justify adverse actions by using stereotypes, either, such as “now that you’re pregnant, the best thing for you to do is go raise your kid,” says Elizabeth Grossman, an EEOC regional attorney.