Pregnant Need NOT Appl

Bias complaints are up

some fear career impact

March 28, 2007|By Hanah Cho | Hanah Cho,Sun reporter

Just days before starting a new job as a receptionist, Kimberly Sudhoff took a telephone call from a hiring manager who asked for her uniform size.

Because she was four months' pregnant, Sudhoff said she wasn't sure about her size. A few days later, she said, the manager rescinded the employment offer and questioned Sudhoff's commitment to the job. Sudhoff said she was encouraged to reapply after having the baby.

"It's really terrible to say, but you can't help to think if I wasn't pregnant, I would have gotten the job," recalled Sudhoff, 27, who lived in Hagerstown at the time and has since moved to Mississippi.

As far as women have come in the workplace, federal officials say Sudhoff's case isn't that rare.

A record 4,901 pregnancy discrimination complaints were filed nationwide with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and state and local fair employment practices agencies in fiscal year 2006. That is a 23 percent increase since 1997, making it one of the fastest-growing workplace bias complaints, according to federal officials. (Though up nationally, the EEOC said Maryland complaints totaled 87 last year - down from 105 in 2005, the only figures the agency made available.)

The number of complaints, however, may not reflect the true scope of the problem, said EEOC spokesman David Grinberg. That's because officials believe many women, especially those on a professional track, see filing a complaint and litigation as a "career killer," he said.

The nationwide increase in complaints reflects both cultural shifts and old-fashioned notions that still exist in the workplace, consultants say. The number of women working has grown in the past several decades, with their labor force participation reaching almost 60 percent in 2005, according to U.S. Department of Labor.

Under federal law, employers must treat pregnancy the same way they handle a temporary illness or medical condition. The Pregnancy Discrimination Act, which applies to employers with 15 or more employees, covers areas of hiring, leave, health insurance and benefits.

Workplace consultants and lawyers say employers should not ask prospective workers whether they are pregnant or expect to start a family. And job candidates are not required to disclose that they are expecting, although it may be obvious in some cases, EEOC officials said.

It's up to prospective employees to decide the best time to disclose their pregnancy, but workplace consultants recommend telling bosses as soon as possible so employers can start making accommodations and staffing plans.

Sudhoff decided to go to the EEOC after she was emboldened by an article on pregnancy discrimination that she read in a book her doctor provided. She filed a complaint last year against Falling Spring Corp., a franchise owner of a Hampton Inn in Hagerstown, with the Baltimore office of the EEOC.

In turn, the EEOC, which enforces federal laws prohibiting job discrimination, filed a lawsuit on her behalf. Falling Spring, which has settled the case with EEOC, denied the allegations.

Maria Salacuse, a senior trial attorney in the EEOC's Baltimore office, said women have become more aware of pregnancy-protection under the law, and they are "willing to come forward and file complaints."

Based on cases that she has handled, "there appears to be a presumption or misconception about what women should be doing in the workplace if they're pregnant and whether they should be in the workplace if they are pregnant," Salacuse said.

As more women try to have both a career and a family, employers are increasingly facing the need to better balance their business needs with accommodations for pregnant workers, consultants and EEOC officials say.

"If you look back 20 to 30 years ago, a lot of women when they became pregnant, they left the work force," said Jocelyn Frye, a general counsel for the National Partnership for Women & Families, a nonprofit group. "Now, it's far more common that women stay in the work force."

About 60 percent of women quit their jobs before or shortly after their child's birth in the 1960s. That number fell to 27 percent during the early 1990s, according to a U.S. Census study examining maternity leave and employment patterns from 1961 to 1995.

"Women should never be forced to choose between motherhood and their livelihood," said Grinberg, the EEOC spokesman. "Employers should be sensitive to this issue."

The most common allegations of pregnancy discrimination involve not being hired, unlawful demotions and firing, EEOC and workplace consultants say.

Of the 4,629 pregnancy discrimination complaints that were closed by the EEOC in fiscal year 2006, about 27 percent were considered to be favorable outcomes for the women who filed the complaints, including settlements. The federal agency recovered $10.4 million during the same period; the figure does not include awards obtained through litigation.

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