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Can the U.S. Ever Fix Its Messed-Up Maternity Leave System?

Can the U.S. ever untangle its mixed-up maternity leave system?
Can the U.S. Ever Fix Its Messed-Up Maternity Leave System?
Photographer: Steven Brahms for Bloomberg Businessweek

One week into her new job, Letitia Camire learned she was pregnant. It was 2011, and she’d just been hired as the office manager for United Tool & Machine, a small, family-owned tool and die company outside Boston. Her salary was $30,000 a year. Camire clicked with her co-workers immediately. Her boss, the owner and president, started asking her about long-term career goals. “They seemed so family-oriented,” says Camire, now 32. So when her morning sickness became noticeable (“I just sat at my desk looking like death warmed over”), she felt she owed her new work family an explanation. She was only a few weeks along when she walked into the president’s office one morning, shut the door, and told him she was pregnant.

“His face immediately changed,” she says. “The first words out of his mouth were, ‘You know you’re still on your 90-day probation period.’ So I pretty much knew what that meant.” A few weeks later, she was let go. The company told her it was a reorganization move, but she didn’t buy it. She knew that according to the 1978 Pregnancy Discrimination Act, firing or demoting an employee because she’s pregnant is illegal, but she also knew discrimination can be hard to prove. The U.S. Supreme Court recently considered the case of Peggy Young, a United Parcel Service employee who was forced into unpaid leave when she told her company she was pregnant and couldn’t carry packages heavier than 20 pounds. Young has lost in lower courts because UPS’s accommodation of disabilities not caused by workplace injuries is gender-neutral. The court will issue its decision later this year. “I didn’t have the financial resources to fight,” Camire says. United Tool & Machine says Camire was let go because her job was eliminated, and that the president was unaware she was pregnant at the time.