family responsibilities discrimination
As more women and men are aware of their rights to take care of their families while employed, family responsibility discrimination suits are rising. (Photo via freestocks.org)

Family Responsibilities Discrimination Cases Against Employers are Rising, Plaintiffs are Winning

More people than ever before are filing — and winning — family responsibilities discrimination lawsuits against their employers.

The number of family responsibilities discrimination suits has risen by 269 percent between 2005 and 2015, according to a 2016 report by the Center for WorkLife Law.

The idea of one spouse working and the other staying home and raising children is becoming less of a reality, the report says. With the cost of childcare rising, more parents are opting to juggle professional lives with running their households. Additionally, those responsible for taking care of elderly, sick or disabled relatives are also standing up to employers who do not fairly accommodate them.

A February New York Times investigation that dug up pregnancy discrimination suits from some of the largest companies in the country revealed: “Whether women work at Walmart or on Wall Street, getting pregnant is often the moment they are knocked off of the professional ladder.”

The most common plaintiffs in these lawsuits are pregnant women, breastfeeding mothers and people caring for elderly relatives. Experts say the cultural sea change taking place in the wake of the #MeToo movement may also be a contributor to the phenomenon as women become more aware of their rights and emboldened to demand them.

Working women aren’t just filing these lawsuits at a higher rate; they’re winning them. Women file approximately 88 percent of family responsibilities discrimination suits. The chances of employers winning these suits if they go to trial instead of being settled are low, with success rates of about 15 to 33 percent.

The Pregnancy Discrimination Act makes it illegal to discriminate against a pregnant employee. In 2015, the landmark Young v. United Parcel Service case determined the Pregnancy Discrimination Act applied to workplace accommodations too.

In Young’s case, she was a UPS driver who asked for lighter lifting during her pregnancy and was denied, despite other workers with injuries or disabilities being granted it.  An employer must accommodate a pregnant person’s needs if the accommodations are available to workers with non-pregnancy related conditions. One cannot prevent a pregnant woman from sitting instead of standing, keeping water with her, taking more frequent bathroom or snack breaks, requesting help lifting, reducing hours or taking leave.

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Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 also makes it illegal to pass an applicant up for a job because she is pregnant. Despite these laws, discrimination based on pregnancy is still rampant, with employers thinly veiling their intentions to force pregnant women out of their jobs by not accommodating their needs.

Once they become mothers, however, discrimination often continues. Between 2006 and 2015, there were just 46 cases of breastfeeding discrimination brought to court. The Family Responsibility Discrimination Act was published in 2014 and in the first three years since it was published, there were 37 cases that made it to court, according to the 2016 report.

Women are not the only people with family responsibilities, though, and the number of discrimination claims brought by male caregivers is rising. Another form of family responsibilities discrimination can be verbal comments that hearken to gendered stereotypes: Women who work too much may be labeled as selfish or bad mothers, while pregnant women may be dismissed as lazy or flighty. Men who work less to take care of children or other relatives are shamed for not being masculine enough. These examples are all forms of sex discrimination under Title VII.

Though the wording of Title VII does not specifically protect pregnant people from discrimination, it is sex discrimination if a woman is treated differently than her male colleagues because of her pregnancy or motherhood.

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