Pregnancy Employment Bias Suits Surge

Katrina Woznicki - WeNews correspondent
March 4, 2005

She was newly married and had just received a written offer for a dream job as an executive vice president of marketing and communication at Johnson Financial Group in Racine, Wis., a company owned by S.C. Johnson and Son, the household-product giant also located in Racine.

The job was going to pay a $170,000 salary, plus bonuses and stock options. To make her good fortune even more complete, Good, then 42, had recently discovered she was pregnant.

Two days after the written offer, Good accepted the position in a meeting with Johnson’s chief executive officer. Then she informed the CEO that she was pregnant. Three days before she was due to report to work, Good was told the job was no longer hers.

“I received a call from human resources on the Friday before the Monday I was to start, revoking the job offer,” said Good, currently a stay-at-home mother to her daughter who was born in November 2002.

Good did not let the matter end there. Instead, last December she settled the suit for $450,000 in lost wages.

Jean Kamp, a regional attorney in Milwaukee for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, represented Good and based her case on the 1978 Pregnancy Discrimination Act, an amendment to the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

As part of the settlement, Johnson Financial Group has to report to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission for the next two years concerning all female applicants for executive jobs.

Question of ‘Dedication’

Kamp is careful not to disparage Johnson Financial Group’s general practices toward women. “We don’t dispute their record with women,” Kamp told Women’s eNews. “They just didn’t think a pregnant woman could be completely dedicated to the job.”

Working Mother magazine named S.C. Johnson and Son as one the top 100 U.S. companies for working mothers in 2004.

“Whether you’re a woman at the highest level of corporate America or if you’re a woman at the lowest-paying job, you’re not immune to discrimination,” said Jocelyn Frye, director of legal and public policy for the National Partnership for Women and Families in Washington, D.C.

Good’s case in one in a recent uptick in the number of pregnancy-discrimination legal complaints against employers.

Last week a dozen women brought a $100 million gender-discrimination suit in New York against Novartis, the pharmaceuticals giant headquartered in Basel, Switzerland. Half of the women said their requests for advancement were turned down either during their pregnancies or after maternity leaves.

These types of complaints rose 39 percent between 1992-2003, during which the nation’s birth rate dropped 9 percent during that period, the National Partnership for Women and Families in Washington, D.C., reported recently.

More Bias or More Action?

Some experts say the nearly 40-percent jump in pregnancy discrimination complaints during the last 12 years may reflect more women speaking up for their rights.

“People may be becoming more aware of what the law is,” says Frye. “More women are staying in the workforce when they become pregnant and they are asking their workplaces to accommodate their pregnancies.”

The Pregnancy Discrimination Act forbids employers to deny women jobs because of pregnancy. It requires them to hold open a job for a pregnancy-related absence for the same length of time that they hold open jobs for sick or disabled employees. It outlaws the mistreatment of employees who are temporarily unable to perform job duties due to pregnancy and requires employers to adjust job duties as they would for any disabled employee.

The Family Medical Leave Act offers additional protection. It says an employee who has worked for a company for at least 12 months can take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave and keep her health insurance coverage through the employer.

Plenty of Anti-Bias Work

Despite the legal protections, Kathleen Peratis, a partner at Outten and Golden, a New York law firm, still has plenty of work representing pregnant women who feel they have suffered discrimination.

“There’s still this deep-seated belief that you can’t do as well if you’re pregnant,” Peratis said. “Pregnancy spooks people, especially men. They worry about the delicacy of the woman’s being. And there’s the biased attitude that women are likely not to come back to work or to not be fully committed to the workplace.”

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2002, 36 percent of women with college degrees who have had a baby in the previous year are staying home with the child. Census figures show the number of married women with children under age 6 who worked outside the home dropped from 63.7 percent in 1998 to 62.5 percent in 2001. There is no consensus on why these numbers are down and why slightly more women are opting to stay home with their children.

Pregnancy discrimination hits women of all professional backgrounds. Peratis’ clients have included 10 transportation workers for the New York City subway system who sued in 1998 claiming they were discriminated against because they were mothers-to-be. She has also represented a senior level executive at a big investment bank who was demoted after returning from maternity leave.

Most recently, Peratis represented a 28-year-old who taught at a private Catholic school for six years and then became pregnant while she was single. The school fired her and claimed she was being let go for poor performance. But Peratis fought the termination on the pregnancy-bias grounds. She says the school and her client agreed to a six-figure settlement.

Good, meanwhile, says she never intended to be a stay-at-home parent.

“I’m currently looking for a comparable position to continue my career,” she says. That hasn’t been easy, since she’s now been out of the workplace for nearly three years and executive positions can be difficult to come by.

“They just didn’t want a pregnant woman in a top job,” says Kamp, Good’s lawyer. “She hasn’t been able to find another job since, so it’s obviously a substantial interruption to her career.”