Pregnancy is Not a Fireable Offense

AutoZone, a national auto-parts retailer, announced late last month that it would drop its appeal in a 2014 pregnancy discrimination case and accept a verdict ordering it to pay former employee Rosario Juarez a record-breaking $185 million in damages.

Pressured to abandon her managerial role, forcibly demoted and finally fired, AutoZone told Juarez both implicitly and explicitly that as a pregnant woman and then a mother, she somehow automatically became a second-class worker.

She is far from alone.

A 2013 report by the National Women’s Law Center details the wide range of women who suffer from pregnancy discrimination: These are pregnant women who were denied basic accommodations like water or access to a bathroom, unnecessarily forced onto unpaid leave, or, like Juarez, ultimately fired as a result of their pregnancies.

In total, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and local Fair Employment Practices agencies received more than 5,000 pregnancy-related complaints in 2013 alone, up nearly 35 percent since 1997.

The Pregnancy Discrimination Act is supposed to protect pregnant women in the workplace, expressly forbidding employers from considering pregnancy in any aspect of employment including hiring, firing, promotions or allocation of benefits.

Women with temporary impairments like gestational diabetes are also protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act, requiring employers to make the same reasonable accommodations they would afford any other disabled worker, like honoring a request for reassignment to light duty.

However, Juarez’s case is notable, not only for the size of the damages the jury awarded, but also because many pregnancy discrimination suits die before they ever reach a courtroom.

Discrimination is difficult to prove because coworkers and other witnesses often are afraid to testify, and there is usually little other concrete evidence. Still more women don’t file pregnancy discrimination suits at all—for fear of reprisal or because they simply lack the resources.

Yet there is hope that women may no longer be forced out of the workplace because of their personal reproductive choices.

The ruling in Juarez’s case sent a powerful message that the ordinary people who make up juries respect a woman’s right to have both a job and a family.

The EEOC has also been stepping up its efforts, formally reissuing the rules on pregnancy discrimination in July 2014 to make sure both workers and their employers understand the law.

And even the relatively conservative Supreme Court ruled this past session that Peggy Young, a woman forced by her employer onto unpaid leave in 2006, deserved to have her case heard, that the lower court that threw out her lawsuit was wrong and needed to reconsider the case.

Women make up nearly half of all workers, and mothers with children under the age of 18 participate in the labor force at the rate of 70 percent. It’s time to stop punishing women for undertaking the very natural process of creating a family while also having the audacity to want to provide for it.

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