On the wrong side of the Mommy Track

April 12, 1993|By Michele Morris | Michele Morris,Contributing Writer

Bernadette Lorestani never dreamed that having a baby would cost her her job. But three days before she was scheduled to return from maternity leave, the then-28-year-old accountant was fired. "I felt I was thrown away like a piece of garbage," she recalls.

Ms. Lorestani had worked for Pantzer Management Co., a New Jersey real estate and investment management firm, for three years before she announced she was expecting. She told her supervisor she intended to work until two weeks prior to her due date and then take about eight weeks off.

Everything went smoothly until her ninth month of pregnancy, when Ms. Lorestani was ordered by her doctor to stay home and rest. A month later, in July 1987, her first child, a boy, was born. Seven weeks later, on the Friday before she was to return to her $26,000-a-year-job, she stopped by the office with her infant son.

"A few minutes after I arrived, the controller asked me to come to his office," Ms. Lorestani says. "I told him how happy I was to be returning to work on Monday. He shut the door and told me that they no longer had a place for me, that everything was running smoothly without me. I was shocked, I blurted out something, and then I started to cry and shake. I grabbed my sleeping son in his infant seat and ran out of the office. I felt humiliated -- as if everyone else knew."

After Ms. Lorestani left the building, the controller told the staff that she had just resigned.

As the number of working women having babies continues to grow, stories like Ms. Lorestani's are becoming more commonplace. "Pregnancy is the moment in a woman's life when discrimination is most likely to occur," said Joan Bertin, associate director of the Women's Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union. Each year, thousands of pregnant women and new mothers are fired, demoted or denied benefits. Many others experience more subtle forms of discrimination: Promotions are withheld, pay raises are slow in coming, responsibilities are taken away.

The 1978 Pregnancy Discrimination Act made it illegal to discriminate on the basis of pregnancy. But recent surveys suggest that the bias against new mothers in the workplace is pervasive.

A groundbreaking study of 2,500 employment-discrimination claims filed in Ohio between 1985 and 1990 found that women who took medical leaves for childbirth were more than 10 times more likely to lose their jobs than employees who took other medical leaves.

"More than 23 percent of women who took medical leaves to have babies were not rehired, yet only 2 percent of women who took medical leaves for other reasons were not reinstated," said Ann Wendt, assistant professor of management at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, who co-wrote the study with William Slonaker, a Wright State associate professor of business law.

Since 1988, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has received 15,802 pregnancy-related complaints -- roughly one of every eight sex-discrimination complaints recorded -- and has filed 195 suits and resolved 170.

Ms. Wendt and Mr. Slonaker report that one out of five sex-discrimination cases filed by women in their Ohio study involved pregnancy discrimination. This may be just the tip of the iceberg. Legal analysts believe that discrimination in the workplace is one of the least reported offenses.

In a 1990 study by the National Law Journal, 25 percent of the respondents reported that they had been discriminated against at work. Only 2 percent, however, consulted or hired an attorney or filed a lawsuit.

"Finding a new job is often more of a priority than filing a claim," said Ellen Vargyas, senior counsel at the National Women's Law Center. "You can't expect a woman to be Joan of Arc if there's nothing to be gained."

Ms. Lorestani's experience offers hope that this situation may soon change. After she filed suit in 1989, her case was strengthened when another Pantzer employee, Candy Rendine, the company's assistant controller, joined her suit. Ms. Lorestani was the first woman in the company to get pregnant; Ms. Rendine was the second. Ms. Rendine was allowed to return to work but found that her job had been gutted and her responsibilities given to a male employee. When she protested, she was fired on the spot for insubordination.

Three years later, the two women won their case. In March 1992, a state jury found Pantzer guilty of sex discrimination and awarded Ms. Lorestani and Ms. Rendine a total of $935,000 in compensatory and punitive damages.

Pantzer filed an appeal in September 1992. In a written statement, company president Edward S. Pantzer said he intends to "vigorously pursue all appeals and other remedies available to the company in order to rectify this miscarriage of justice."

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