The Mommy Backlash

Candy Rendine got a shock in late 1987, when she returned to her job as assistant controller at Pantzer Management Co. in Ridgewood, N.J., after a three-month maternity leave. In her absence, the privately held real estate firm had named a second assistant controller: a man Rendine had trained to fill in for her temporarily. She kept her title, but he had her responsibilities, she claimed in a subsequent suit. Rendine's former staff of more than 20 was forbidden to speak to her, the suit added, and her desk was moved to a back corner. Five days after she returned, Rendine was fired following a confrontation with her boss. Her assistant, Bernadette Lorestani, fared badly, too: She was told not to come back when she went on maternity leave about the same time.

Last March, the two got even. A state court jury found Pantzer guilty of discrimination and awarded the women a total of $935,000 in lost wages and punitive damages. In June, Judge William C. Meehan added $374,000 more in interest and legal fees. Pantzer's lawyer, Rosemary Alito, denies that the company fired the women because of their pregnancies, but Rendine disagrees: "They never even gave me a chance," she says.

LESS IMPUNITY. Some 14 years after Congress passed the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 (PDA), tens of thousands of women still lose their jobs each year after they become pregnant. Many are dismissed illegally. Others simply aren't protected, since the federal government and small businesses aren't covered by the act. "There's a tremendous amount of discrimination despite the law," says Ann C. Wendt, a professor at Wright State University in Dayton. "It's like sexual harassment: It takes some spark, like the Clarence Thomas hearings, to get people to see the problem."

There's no spark yet: Many women suffer in silence, either not knowing their rights or unable to afford a lawyer. But a growing number are winning suits that expand the law (table). This should leave employers less able to discriminate with impunity. And the publicity generated may give new life to a federal family-leave bill guaranteeing 12 weeks of unpaid leave for many new mothers. Congress passed such a law in 1990, but President Bush vetoed it, saying businesses need the flexiblity to design their own policies.

No one knows for sure how many women suffer pregnancy discrimination. But the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal agency that enforces the PDA, says that the 3,000 pregnancy-discrimination charges it handles each year are less than 5% of the cases filed in courts around the country. A hotline run by the Cleveland-based women's group 9 to 5, National Association of Working Women, gets 15,000 calls a year from women claiming such discrimination. And a survey in Minnesota, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Wisconsin, done last year by the New York-based Families & Work Institute, found that up to 4% of pregnant women said they were fired. That's the same percentage found in a 1985 Census Bureau study. This implies that across the U.S., up to 80,000 women a year are dumped after they become pregnant.

Theoretically, the PDA should prevent much of this. The law amended the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by requiring employers to treat pregnancy as a disability. But the Civil Rights Act exempts federal employees and companies with 14 or fewer workers, which means that more than 16 million female employees can be fired legally when they become pregnant, according to EEOC estimates.

SUBTLETIES. Nor does the law apply to employers who lack a sick-leave policy. This excludes millions of women, too, though many of them are the same ones who work at small companies not covered by the law. A 1989 Small Business Administration study found that 90% of companies with 100 or more workers offered a sick-leave policy but that only 75% of those with fewer than 16 workers had one. "There's no question that the problem is with small companies," says Heidi I. Hartmann, director of the Institute for Women's Policy Research, a nonprofit research group in Washington.

Even in companies that are covered, many cases aren't clearly addressed by the law. Just ask Laurie Templeton. Before having a baby last January, she worked five years in the computer-aided drafting department at Baymont Technologies Inc., a company in Clearwater, Fla., that maps underground cables for utilities. After a long search, Templeton, 30, found a day-care center that would take her child at the age of eight weeks. But in December, Baymont said its policy would only let her take off as long as a doctor said she was disabled. And when her baby was six weeks old, Templeton's doctor said her time was up.

Templeton couldn't arrange care for Alyssa for the two weeks that remained until the day-care center would take over. So, she asked Baymont if she could take accumulated vacation, work another shift, or simply take a leave without pay, all to no avail. Finally, management suggested that she quit her job for the two weeks, then immediately reapply. With much trepidation, she did.

During those two weeks, Baymont lost a contract and laid off 150 employees. So, it refused to rehire Templeton. The company's human-resources director, Patricia J. Boyd, denies that Templeton was discriminated against or that she was definitely promised her job back. Templeton tried several lawyers, but none would take her case on a contingency basis, and she couldn't afford to pay them up front. "It sounds totally illegal, but when you go to fight it, you need money," says Templeton bitterly.

WINDOWLESS OFFICES. Other pregnant workers don't lose their jobs but still face discrimination. Some are denied raises, promotions, or training. "Or maybe they're not seen as a serious worker and given a windowless office er are not invited to important meetings," says Ellen Galinsky, co-president of the Families & Work Institute. Agrees Charles Rodgers, a principal at Work/Family Directions, a Boston company that consults on family issues for about 90 large companies such as Corning, Xerox, and Du Pont: "Most companies, even the most progressive ones, have some of this subtle discrimination going on."

This is even harder to document than firings, because few women want to risk their jobs by bringing hard-to-prove charges. Susan Smith (not her real name), a U.S. Postal Service employee in New York, is pursuing a discrimination charge through her union, the National Association of Letter Carriers.

Smith, whose child was born in July, claims her supervisor refused to let her do clerical work instead of hoofing the mail in her last months of pregnancy, even though the Postal Service routinely accommodates other disabled deliverers this way. Without commenting on her case, a Post Office spokesman agrees that the service's labor contracts obligate it to look for light duty for pregnant workers. "My boss said light duty is a privilege he doesn't have to give me," alleges Smith. "But before I got pregnant, I sprained my ankle and was bit by a dog, and they let me do it then."

The family-leave bill, which Congress is likely to pass again this year, would end some of the firings. It would guarantee that pregnant workers get their jobs back when their leave is up. Still, it excludes employers with 50 workers or more--a higher limit than the PDA. So for thousands of the 2 million workers who get pregnant each year, the message remains disheartening: You can have a child, but often at the expense of the job you need to afford one.

      Employers are prohibited from discriminating against pregnant workers by the 
      Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978, as well as by some 40 state laws and many 
      city and county ordinances. Recent court decisions expand these protections
      MARCH, 1992 A federal judge in the state of Washington held that Goodyear Tire 
      & Rubber discriminated against a female office manager. She was replaced while 
      on pregnancy leave and given a newly created, less-secure position when she 
      returned. Five months later, she was laid off when the position was abolished
      OCTOBER, 1991 A federal court in Washington, D.C., ruled that a man could sue 
      under the 1978 law when he and his wife, who worked at the same company, were 
      both fired after she got pregnant. The company, business-graphics maker 
      Imagematrix of Falls Church, Va., settled the case out of court
      JULY, 1991 An Illinois federal court ruled that Warshawsky & Co.'s sick leave 
      policy, which excluded all first-year employees regardless of sex, nonetheless 
      discriminated against women. Because only women can get pregnant, the court 
      said, they were 11 times as likely as males to be discharged in their first 
      year of work with the auto parts company
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