On occasion, I’d like to bring you some advice from fellow DC moms who are experts on topics most of us care deeply about. Topics will range from serious to helpful to warding off an annual summer crisis: avoiding lion hair in the DC humidity. Today’s topic is about protecting yourself, your job and knowing your rights if you are interviewing and pregnant, planning for maternity leave or returning to work and nursing. Today we’ll be talking with Anne Noel Occhialino, who is a local mom of two and has been an employment discrimination attorney with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission for over a decade.
Interviewing and Pregnant
I have a friend who revealed she was pregnant to a potential employer after she was offered the job. The employer then rescinded the offer. What is your advice to women who learn they are pregnant while interviewing?
Anne Noel: “My advice is to think very carefully before volunteering that information. The Pregnancy Discrimination Act is a federal law that prohibits employers (defined as an employer with at least 15 employees) from discriminating against pregnant women. That means that it is against the law to refuse to hire a woman because she is pregnant. We know that pregnancy discrimination persists, however, and it even may be increasing. In fiscal year 1997 the EEOC received fewer than 4,000 charges alleging pregnancy discrimination but in each of the last three fiscal years we have received in excess of 6,000 charges per year. From the perspective of the employer, hiring someone who will go out on maternity leave in 6 months is less than an ideal scenario. Because women are not obligated to disclose their pregnancies, and because some employers still discriminate against pregnant women, my advice is that pregnant women keep their happy news to themselves until they begin work. Once a woman starts working, she may convince her employer that she’s an excellent employee, pregnancy or no pregnancy, and it may be harder at that point for an employer to discriminate against her by firing her.”
Bottom line – you are under no obligation to volunteer this information, so focus on protecting yourself first.
I am incensed just thinking about where we stand compared to other nations on federally mandated paid maternity leave. In case you don’t know, the United States is the only industrialized country in the world, except Australia, that doesn’t mandate paid maternity leave. Many other countries also offer fathers paid paternity leave, which is I think part of our mistake here in the U.S. Domestically, this issue is viewed as a women’s issue instead of a family issue, a societal issue.
What should women know about maternity leave and their job security?
Anne Noel: “People are often surprised when I say that I had to cobble together sick time, vacation time and unpaid leave to take “maternity leave” after the births of my daughters. The Pregnancy Discrimination Act does not require that employers give women maternity leave. Instead, it requires only that employers treat pregnant women the same as everyone else. What that means is that if an employer gives employees sick leave or a set amount of unpaid leave for medical illnesses or injuries, it must also allow pregnant women to take that leave. So, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act does not require that pregnant women receive paid maternity leave, and no other federal law does, either. The news about unpaid leave is a little bit better. In 1993, President Clinton signed the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) . The FMLA guarantees up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for a child, including a newly adopted child or newly placed foster child. Workers are eligible if they work for the government or in the private sector, so long as they work for an employer with 50 or more employees. Additionally, employees must have worked a minimum of 12 months for the same employer and must work more than part-time, or about 31 weeks of the year. Because of the prevalence of small businesses in our country, only 60% of private sector employees are covered by FMLA.”
Monica: There is movement in the individual states to improve the law on maternity leave, and California is leading the way. Under the state disability fund, new parents are insured 6 weeks of paid time off.
MomsRising provides invaluable information on this topic, here is a quick overview of facts from their web site that we all should know:
- Having a baby is a leading cause of “poverty spells” in the U.S. — when income dips below what’s needed for basic living expenses.
- In the U.S., 49% of mothers cobble together paid leave following childbirth by using sick days, vacation days, disability leave, and maternity leave.
- 51% of new mothers lack any paid leave — so some take unpaid leave, some quit, some even lose their jobs.
- The U.S is one of only 4 countries that doesn’t offer paid leave to new mothers — the others are Papua New Guinea, Swaziland, and Lesotho.
- Paid family leave has been shown to reduce infant mortality by as much as 20% (and the U.S. ranks a low 37th of all countries in infant mortality).
I am constantly amazed by how much time is spent focusing on the importance of breast milk to the newborn child and yet so little time is focused on the difficulties working women face in nursing exclusively given our lack of federally mandated paid maternity leave and limited access to safe and clean places to pump in the workplace. Hypocrisy abounds.
I understand that in the Affordable Care Act passed last year, the President included some protection for nursing moms in the workplace. What can you tell us about this new law and what hurdles nursing moms face in the workplace?
Anne Noel: “Yes, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (“PPACA”), was signed into law on March 23, 2010. It requires employers to provide ‘reasonable break time for an employee to express breast milk for her nursing child for 1 year after the child’s birth each time such employee has need to express the milk.’ Employers are also required to provide a place other than a bathroom to express milk. This law primarily protects hourly workers and is subject to exceptions. Employers with fewer than 50 employees are not subject to the break time requirement if doing so would impose an “undue hardship” on the employer. This law should make it easier for many, but not all, women to express breast milk in the work place.
But working women face other hurdles in the work place when it comes to expressing breast milk. In one case that the EEOC successfully litigated and then settled, a female doctor filed a charge of discrimination alleging that the owner of the family medical practice where she worked had sexually harassed her. She alleged that the harassment intensified when she returned from her six-week maternity lleave and focused on her need to express breast milk for her son. Although she would pump in her own office at lunchtime, her male boss made lewd and sexually-suggestive remarks to her, asking if he could “help” her pump, if he could see her breasts before she finished pumping and if her sex drive increased when she was pumping, and even saying that he would like to “lick up” a drop of breast milk that had fallen on her desk. Mostly because of the harassment, she soon found a new job.”
Anne Noel’s closing advice: “If you think you have been discriminated against, consult an attorney who can advise you as to your rights under federal and state law. It is usually a good idea to try and work things out with your employer, if you can. But if you cannot, try to take notes about what happened and think about other people who could corroborate your claim. Remember that litigation can take years, but sometimes it is the only way to remedy discrimination and bring about change. And also remember that you must file a charge of discrimination with the EEOC or your state agency if you want to go to court to assert federal claims of employment discrimination and that you have to file a charge within 180 days or 300 days, depending on where you live.”
Monica: Thank you to Anne Noel for providing us with such invaluable information. And thank you to MomsRising for always keeping us current on important facts. Next week we will get some expert advice on avoiding horrid summer frizzy hair.
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