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February 17, 2012
EEOC: Discrimination Based on Pregnancy, Caregiving Remains Widespread Problem

According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, despite laws, guidance, and willingness to work, many pregnant women and caregivers continue to be denied job opportunities, workplace modifications, leave, and equal treatment.

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So at a time when most pregnant women want and need to work, and more American workers struggle to balance work and family, discrimination against pregnant women and workers with caregiving responsibilities remains a significant problem, experts told a meeting of the EEOC on February 15.

The meeting was a follow-up to Commission meetings in 2007, when the Commission issued its groundbreaking “Enforcement Guidance on Unlawful Disparate Treatment of Workers with Caregiving Responsibilities” and in 2009, when the Commission issued “Employer Best Practices for Workers with Caregiving Responsibilities.

Emily Martin, vice president and general counsel of the National Women’s Law Center, told the Commission that even though the Pregnancy Discrimination Act was passed more than 30 years ago, women still often face demotions, prejudice, and even job loss when they become pregnant.

“Pregnancy discrimination persists in the 21st century workplace, unnecessarily depriving women of the means to support their families,” said EEOC Chair Jacqueline A. Berrien. “Similarly, caregivers—both men and women—too often face unequal treatment on the job. The EEOC is committed to ensuring that job applicants and employees are not subjected to unlawful discrimination on account of pregnancy or because of their efforts to balance work and family responsibilities.”

According to Bureau of Labor Statistics data cited by Judith Lichtman, senior advisor for the National Partnership for Women & Families, women are now the primary, or co-primary, breadwinners in nearly two-thirds of families. Because of this, “women cannot afford to lose their jobs or income due to pregnancy or childbirth,” Lichtman said.

In addition to discrimination based on pregnancy, women and men face obstacles in their work lives due to their roles as caregivers, said Lynn Friss Feinberg, senior strategic policy advisor at the AARP Public Policy Institute. The aging of the population and changing demographics mean that “42 percent of U.S. workers have provided care for an aging relative or friend in the past 5 years,” and almost half of U.S. workers expect to provide eldercare in the next 5 years, Feinberg said. These numbers do not include workers who care for children.

“Discrimination against pregnant women and caregivers continues to be an issue of vital concern for the Commission,” said EEOC Commissioner Stuart J. Ishimaru. “Employers should not make decisions based on stereotypes and presumptions about the competence and commitment of these workers. The EEOC will vigorously enforce the antidiscrimination laws as they apply to pregnant women and caregivers.”

Panelists Sharon Terman and Joan Williams cited many examples of the kinds of discrimination pregnant workers and workers with caregiving responsibilities experience. Terman, of The Legal Aid Society Employment Law Center, described situations in which pregnant women were met with harassment and hostility in response to their pregnancies or were subjected to decreased hours, forced unpaid leave, or job loss. Williams, director of the Center for Worklife Law at Hastings Law School and an expert on caregiver bias, recounted the story of a pregnant worker who was not permitted to alter her uniform due to her pregnancy but forced to take leave when it no longer fit her. Williams also pointed out examples of men who were penalized by their employers for requesting to use leave to which they were entitled for caregiving responsibilities, based on gender stereotypes that dictate caregiving should be “women’s work.”

While pregnancy and discrimination arising from caregiving impacts all segments of the workforce, low-wage workers are particularly affected, said Maryann Parker, associate general counsel of the Service Employees International Union. She noted the change away from manufacturing and towards service sector jobs for low-wage workers, jobs that are notably more likely to be part-time and low wage. These jobs often have rigid work schedules with no flexibility or, on the other end of the spectrum, completely unpredictable schedules with no fixed hours from week to week, making planning for caregiving more difficult.

A number of witnesses called for greater guidance and on the subject, as well as stepped-up enforcement and closer coordination between the EEOC, which enforces laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex, pregnancy, and disability, and the U.S. Department of Labor, which enforces the Family and Medical Leave Act and the Affordable Care Act’s Break Time for Nursing Mothers provision of the Fair Labor Standards Act, according to the press release.

EEOC will hold open the Feb. 15, 2012 meeting record for 15 days and invites members of the public to submit written comments on any issues or matters discussed at the meetings. Public comments may be mailed to Commission Meeting, EEOC Executive Officer, 131 M Street, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20507, or e-mailed to Commissionmeetingcomments@eeoc.gov. All comments received will be made available to members of the Commission and to Commission staff working on the matters discussed at the meetings. Comments will also be placed in the EEOC library for public review.



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