Shift Expected on Pregnancy Accommodation

Should employers treat pregnant employees who suffer temporary disabilities the same way they treat other employees with temporary disabilities?

Yes, says the U.S. Office of the Solicitor General.

However, Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli Jr,  says most federal appellate courts who have addressed the issue have decided it incorrectly by holding that employers do not have to accommodate pregnant workers who suffer temporary pregnancy-related disabilities.

Verrilli nevertheless recently recommended that the U.S. Supreme Court decline to review a case in which Peggy Young, a  United Parcel Service driver, was denied “light duty” work when she was pregnant, despite a  doctor’s note stating she should not lift more than 20 pounds during the first half of her pregnancy and not more than 10 pounds for the second half.

Verrilli said two developments may prompt courts to re-assess the issue of pregnancy accommodation. He said the  U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is “currently considering the adoption of new enforcement guidance on pregnancy discrimination.”  He also said 2008 amendments to the Americans with Disabilities Act  cover a broader scope of impairments.  Pregnant workers who can’t get protection under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 (PDA) may have better luck with the ADA, he said . [Read more…]

Settlement is Mother’s Day Gift to Working Mothers

On the heels of Mother’s Day,  a Texas woman has won an important victory for all nursing mothers in the workplace.

Donnicia Vetters  accepted an out of court settlement of $15,000  on the eve of a trial in her lawsuit alleging pregnancy discrimination by her former employer, Houston Funding II, LLC, a Houston, TX,  debt collection agency.  After giving birth in 2012, Vetters inquired whether  she would be able to pump breast milk when she returned to her job.  Her boss allegedly responded by telling her that her position had been “filled.”

If that wasn’t outrageous enough,  U.S.  District Judge Lynn N. Hughes of Houston summarily  dismissed Vetters’ lawsuit against Houston Funding on the grounds that “lactation is not pregnancy, childbirth, or a related medical condition.” He said that “firing someone because of lactation or breast-pumping is not sex discrimination.” Judge Hughes, who is male, suggested that “pregnancy-related conditions” end on the day that a mother gives birth.

Fortunately, Judge Hughes’ opinion was unanimously reversed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, which held that firing a woman because she is expressing milk is unlawful sex discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (as amended by the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978).  Congress passed the Pregnancy Discrimination Act to protect working women against discrimination on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth or a related medical condition.

Ms. Vetters was represented in the case by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

In  EEOC v. Houston Funding II, LLC, the Fifth Circuit noted the biological fact that lactation is a physiological condition distinct to women who have undergone a pregnancy.  Accordingly, the court said, firing a woman because she is expressing milk is unlawful sex discrimination, since men as a matter of biology could not be fired for such a reason. The case was remanded back to the lower court for a trial on the merits.

Instead of showing some decency, acknowledging fault and apologizing to Ms. Vetters, an attorney for Houston Funding was quoted as blaming the EEOC for forcing it to pay up.

The monetary settlement won’t put Ms. Vetters’ baby through college, and won’t compensate for the loss of a job in a difficult economy, but it is a great victory for all working mothers to know that they can’t be fired simply because they choose to nurture their infants with breast milk.

Pregnancy Discrimination Act: 35 Years Later

No Accommodation Requirement

Thirty five years ago this week, President Jimmy Carter signed into law the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 (PDA).

The PDA,  an amendment of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, has proven to be a weak tool to combat  a major societal problem;  It  requires employers to treat pregnant women like others in the workplace but  it does not require employers to make even minimal accommEEOCodation for pregnancy-related conditions  (such as difficulties standing for long period, lifting restrictions, insufficient bathroom breaks, etc.).

Efforts last year to address the PDA’s shortcomings died in the U.S. Congress but the U.S. Equal Opportunity Employment Commission (EEOC) in its 2013-2016 strategic plan  identified combating pregnancy discrimination as a top priority. The EEOC, which is responsible for enforcing the PDA, characterizes the problem as an “emerging and developing” issue. Specifically, the EEOC said it would address the problem of “accommodating pregnancy-related limitations” under the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act and the PDA.

The EEOC and Fair Employment Practice Agencies around the country reported 5,797 complaints of pregnancy discrimination in 2011.

True to its word, the EEOC has filed a spate of lawsuits this year to combat pregnancy discrimination. Most, if not all,  of these lawsuits involve individual defendants and somewhat minor settlements but the EEOC’s effort raises awareness of the problem and, hopefully, puts employers on notice that they are being watched.

 Lawsuits Filed

Here is a sampling of the lawsuits filed this year by the EEOC involving the PDA:

  •  EEOC v. Reed Pierce’s Sportsman’ Grille:  A woman who was four months pregnant with her first child was fired because, her supervisor allegedly said, “The baby is taking its toll on you.”  The EEOC  filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi.  After the defendant lost two motions to dismiss the case, it settled for $20,000.
  • EEOC v. Ramin, Inc.:   Ramin Inc., the owner of a Comfort Inn & Suites, allegedly fired a  housekeeper after she reported her pregnancy because of supposed concerns about potential harm that her job could cause the baby.  The EEOC filed suit in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan. The defendant agreed to pay $2,500 in back pay and $25,000 in compensatory and punitive damages.
  • EEOC v. Engineering Documentation Systems, Inc.:  A management official allegedly made derogatory remarks about a pregnant worker and  refused her request to move her office closer to the restroom to accommodate her nausea.  While she was out on leave, the company changed her job description and then terminated her.  The EEOC filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Nevada. The defendant agreed to pay $70,000 to settle the case.
  • EEOC v. James E. Brown & Associates, PLLC:  A  Washington based law firm offered Zorayda J. Moreira-Smith a position as an associate attorney in January 2011.  The firm allegedly rescinded its job offer  the same day after when Moreira-Smith told them she was six months pregnant and asked the firm about its maternity leave policies.  The EEOC filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. The defendant agreed to pay an $18,000 settlement,  to implement a non-discrimination policy and  to provide training to the firm’s personnel.
  • EEOC v. Platinum P.T.S. Inc. D/B/A/ Platinum Production Testing Services:  A clerk  requested time off for medical treatment relating to her miscarriage.  After she missed five days of work,  the defendant fired her.  The EEOC filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas. The defendant agreed to pay $100,000 to settle the pregnancy discrimination suit.

U.S. Sen. Robert Casey, Jr., of Pennsylvania proposed the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (PWFA) in 2012 to guarantee pregnant women the right to reasonable accommodation when the short-term physical effects of pregnancy conflict with the demands of a particular job, as long as the accommodation does not impose an undue hardship on the employer. The bill died in committee.

Federal Discrimination Laws

Most workplace bullying falls outside the parameters of federal discrimination laws. However, workplace abuse may be the result of illegal discrimination and, if so, you may be able to file a lawsuit seeking damages from your employer. Federal laws prohibit discrimination on the basis of age, disability, national origin, genetic information, pregnancy, race/color, religion and sex. These laws generally cover employees, applicants for employment, former employees and applicants to, and participants in, training and apprenticeship programs. An employer may include private sector and state and government entities, depending on the law. These laws also make it illegal to retaliate against a person who has complained about an equal employment opportunity violation, or participated in filing a charge, testifying, assisting, or participating in any manner in an investigation, proceeding, or hearing under the applicable statute. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) enforces most of these laws (Go to: www.eeoc.gov). Here is a list of major federal laws relating to employment discrimination: RACE AND COLOR, RELIGION, NATIONAL ORIGIN, OR SEX

  • Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII) makes it illegal to discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, or sex. It is also illegal to harass a person because of that person’s race, color, national origin or sex. Harassment goes beyond simple teasing or an offhand comment; it generally must be severe and frequent, creating an hostile or offensive work environment or resulting in an adverse employment decision (such as being fired or demoted). The law also requires that employers reasonably accommodate applicants’ and employees’ sincerely held religious practices, unless doing so would impose an undue hardship on the operation of the employer’s business.

PREGNANCY

  • Title VII was amended by The Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 (PDA), which makes it illegal to discrimination against a woman because of pregnancy, childbirth or a medical condition related to pregnancy or childbirth.

EQUAL PAY

  • The Equal Pay Act of 1963 (EPA) makes it illegal to pay different wages to men and women if they perform the same work in the same workplace. The jobs must be substantially equal and all forms of compensation are covered, including salary, overtime pay, bonuses, stock options, etc. The EPA protects both men and women.
  • Title VII, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA) and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) also prohibit compensation discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age or disability. Unlike the EPA, there is no requirement that the jobs be substantially equal.  The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 establishes that each paycheck that contains discriminatory compensation is a separate violation regardless of when the discrimination began.

AGE DISCRIMINATION An egregious double standard exists for older workers in federal discrimination law. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act,  29 U.S.C. §§ 621 et seq., makes it “unlawful for an employer . . . to discharge any individual . . . because of such individual’s age. Id. at § 623(a).” With any other type of discrimination lawsuit, it is enough to show that you were the victim of illegal discrimination.  But not so with age discrimination claims. To prevail on an ADEA claim, the U.S. Supreme Court saysyou must establish that “that age was the ‘but-for’ cause of the employer’s adverse action.” Gross v. FBL Fin. Servs., Inc., 129 S.Ct. 2343, 2351 (2009).  In a Title VII discrimination lawsuit – when the grounds are discrimination on the basis of  sex, race, color, national origin or religion – it is enough to show the discrimination was a motivating factor for the adverse job action (i.e. demotion or dismissal). So … In an ADEA claim, if your employer can point to any other reason for termination– and who hasn’t been late or disagreed with their boss – your lawsuit may be thrown out of court by a judge before it even gets to a jury.  This, despite he fact that you can show that you were the victim of blatant and reprehensible age discrimination. Why are older Americans treated like second class citizens?   I suggest you ask your Congressional representative and U.S. Senator.  Personally, I can’t think of one good reason except, perhaps, that big business has better lobbyists. DISABILITY

  • Title I and Title V of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, as amended (ADA),  prohibit employment discrimination against qualified individuals with disabilities in the private sector, and in state and local governments. A disability is a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. Employers are required to reasonably accommodate the known physical or mental limitation of an otherwise qualified individual with a disability who is an applicant or an employee, unless doing so would impose an undue hardship on the operation of the employer’s business.
  • Sections 501 and 505 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 make it illegal to discriminate against a qualified person with a disability in the federal government.

GENETIC INFORMATION

  • The Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008 (GINA), which took force on November 21, 2009, makes it illegal to discriminate against employees or applicants because of genetic information. Genetic information includes information about an individual’s genetic tests and the genetic tests of an individual’s family members, as well as information about any disease, disorder or condition of an individual’s family members.

SEXUAL HARASSMENT

  • The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission promulgated guidelines (Sec. 1604.11) pursuant to the adoption of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that make sexual harassment illegal. This includes unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature when:  made either explicitly or implicitly a term or condition of an individual’s employment; submission to or rejection of such conduct by an individual is used as the basis for employment decisions affecting the individual, or; such conduct has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual’s work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment. With respect to fellow employees, an employer is responsible for acts of sexual harassment in the workplace where the employer (or its agents or supervisory employees) know or should have known of the conduct, unless it can show that it took immediate appropriate corrective action.

CITIZENSHIP STATUS AND NATIONAL ORIGIN

  • Claims of discrimination based on citizenship status and national origin are covered both by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and by the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA).
  • The IRCA states that employers cannot discriminate because of national origin against U.S. citizens, U.S. nationals, and authorized aliens. Also, employers cannot discriminate on the basis of citizenship status against U.S. citizens, U.S. nationals, and the following classes of aliens with work authorization: permanent residents, temporary residents (that is, individuals who have gone through the legalization program), refugees, and asylumees. For example, citizenship verification must be obtained from all employees, not just “ethnic” looking employees.The IRCA is implemented by the U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, Office of the Special Counsel for Immigration Related Unfair Employment Practices.
  • Title VII prohibits discrimination on the basis of national origin. It bars discrimination against an individual because of birthplace, ancestry, culture, or linguistic characteristics common to a specific ethnic group. This law is administered by the EEOC.