Doors of opportunity closing on mothers who try to return

Working women

October 07, 1991|By Carol Kleiman | Carol Kleiman,Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO -- When an account executive returned to work at a suburban advertising agency after the birth of her child, she was told the temporary worker hired to do her job at half her salary was going to be kept on -- and she was out of a job.

"They promised I'd have my job when I came back from maternity leave," she said. "Now I'm unemployed, and it's not fair."

A bank loan officer left to have her baby last May. In June, the bank went through a major downsizing -- and she was out. Her accounts were given to a man who was inexperienced in loans and whose workload was doubled.

"The bank wasn't a positive environment for women to work in, but I did think I'd have a job when I came back," she said. "Men have heart attacks all the time, and I expected to be treated like anyone else with a disability. Why should I be treated differently?"

A former health-care worker, a single mother who receives no child support, had a job when she came back from maternity leave but had to start at the bottom again, missing out on a raise and losing seniority. "I was counting on that raise," she said. "How am I supposed to survive? How can I support my baby?"

The 1978 federal Pregnancy Disability Act protects U.S. women from losing their jobs because of pregnancy. But it does not guarantee the same or comparable job, seniority or the same salary on their return. However, if men who incur disabilities are allowed to keep their jobs in a company, it is discriminatory under the act for a pregnant woman to lose her job in that company.

In general, unless returning mothers belong to a union, work for companies with maternity leave or job-guarantee policies, or reside in a state that has family-leave bills, they can lose their jobs and seniority or be demoted. A study by Wright State University, Dayton, of 2,000 Ohio job discrimination claims shows 23 percent of returning mothers lost their jobs.

Last July, American Telephone & Telegraph Co. settled a $66 million pregnancy discrimination lawsuit filed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in behalf of 13,000 women. Mildred Leisure, a former employee, told how she was forced to take an unpaid maternity leave and was not allowed to come back to work when she wanted to. Leisure won compensation from AT&T because pregnancy at the former Western Electric Co. plant was treated as vacation time. Other disabilities were treated as illnesses with benefits, which constitutes sex discrimination.

At the federal level, the Family and Medical Leave Act, which offers unpaid leave for up to 12 weeks and guarantees a job and seniority to returning mothers, was passed last year by the House and Senate but was vetoed by President Bush. A revised bill recently was introduced.

"We're hearing from women all over the country that pregnancy is an employment risk," said Jeanne Clark, a member of the national board of the Washington-based National Organization for Women. "We're seeing a doubling up on the pressure on new mothers. Some employers really want to get rid of them; others feel it's an expedient thing to do because of poor economic conditions. Some women returning from maternity leave are finding they've been replaced by a younger person with less experience -- and who will be cheaper."

Clark says passage of the Family and Medical Leave Act "would create a minimum labor standard, even without pay. It would mean that you don't get fired for having a baby. It would put into rules and regulations a right that men at higher levels of business have enjoyed all their lives: job protection, even when they get sick. It would also recognize that having a baby is something of value."

Donna Lenhoff, legal director of the Women's Legal Defense Fund in Washington and coordinator of the 250-member Family and Medical Leave Coalition, says, "The recession probably contributes to the firing of women returning from maternity leave, but the bottom line is that it's a common happening that people are forced to leave their jobs because of their own medical conditions or to care for family members."

Lenhoff says she's "hopeful that at least some form of the family-leave bill will come through unscathed." But Dana Friedman, co-president of the Families and Work Institute, says, "I have a feeling that unless enough case law convinces individual employers to do this voluntarily, it will take a long time for family leave to be law. I think there will be many more states that will have passed it before we see a federal one."

At Women Employed, a non-profit membership organization based in Chicago, the fact that returning mothers are losing their jobs is not new. "It's been an ongoing problem that still is not resolved," said Anne Ladky, executive director of the research, career planning and advocacy organization. "What we're seeing is an increase in understanding on the part of employees about what's happening to them. In general, employers need to know their legal obligations and recognize the need to help employees balance work and family responsibilities."

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