How the economy is hurting mothers

From The New York Times:

Here’s a pop quiz: Which of the following would violate federal employment law?
1. Laying off a pregnant woman.
2. Laying off a woman on maternity leave.
Pencils down. The answer is “neither.”

So long as employers can make the case that the firing has nothing to do with pregnancy or maternity leave – it’s all good. And it makes sense in theory: after all, folks who do a bad job should be fired no matter what their pregnancy/motherhood status. But the problem is, it seems like employers are using the economy to discriminate against mothers.

“Some employers are using the economy as a pretense for laying off just one person,” Ms. [Elizabeth] Grossman, [a lawyer for the New York district office of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission] said. “And very often that person is pregnant or the oldest employee on staff. The economy may be the legitimate cause — or there may be discrimination.”
Last year the number of pregnancy-based discrimination charges filed with the E.E.O.C. was up nearly 50 percent from a decade earlier, to a total of 6,285. That number seems likely to rise even higher this year.

The whole article is really interesting; make sure to check it out. For more information on motherhood and discrimination, go to Moms Rising.

Join the Conversation

  • dykelawyer

    I think the NYT is a little bit off here – not on the trend of picking on pregnant and postpartum workers, but on the law. Discrimination against pregnant workers is illegal – it is covered by a special amendment to the Civil Rights Act. The Family and Medical Leave Act also guarantees some unpaid maternity leave, and prohibits employers from punishing those who use it. The problem, I believe, is not there is less protection here than from other forms of sex discrimination, but simply that *proving* sex discrimination is always difficult. My guess is that that’s what Ms. Grossman, the EEOC lawyer, was getting at in her quote. At any rate, we could certainly have stronger protection, and stronger enforcement efforts.

  • nightingale

    *glances at the feminism+pro-life discussion* Yeah.

  • crshark

    Mmmm, yeah, I think both the article and this post were a bit misleading. At least I was misled. In reading the ledes of both the article and this post, my impression was that the discussion would be that employers are increasingly covering up their discriminatory treatment of women who are pregnant or on maternity leave by using the faltering economy as a pretext. Maybe they are, but the article doesn’t provide any evidence for this. It’s not illegal to treat someone who happens to be pregnant or on maternity leave adversely, but it is illegal to treat such a person differently or adversely because of her pregnancy/leave status.

  • Salad

    In Germany it’s straight up illegal to fire a woman during pregnancy or anytime during her maternity leave (or 4 months after she gives birth). They might be on to something.

  • adag87

    “Ms. Grossman is among the lawyers who suspect that some employers are now using the law’s laxity and the dismal economy to tacitly discriminate against new or expectant mothers. She and other experts urge women who suspect such discrimination to seek legal counsel.”
    While that may not be proof, per se, I think that section of the article is worth noting. I think the point that the article and this subsequent post is addressing is that the economy being in bad shape is just an added excuse people can use to fire pregnant women.
    Also, I wouldnt be surprised if pregnant women, along with older workers, were being asked to leave before other employees. It’s hard to cite evidence for that sort of thing precisely because discrimination is illegal. I’m not saying discrimination shouldn’t be illegal on all accounts, but I am saying that the reason cited for letting someone go is probably not going to be “pregnancy” or “old age”.
    The point then is that the economic downturn makes discrimination easier to mask.

  • Roscoe

    As an economy major (graduating in June hopefully), I must say that it is very hard to justify a feminist point of view on this issue. Perhaps laying off or firing is not the best option, but if a woman, because of her pregnancy or maternity leave, is not going to be as productive as a man or woman that isn’t/hasn’t gotten pregnant/gone on maternity leave, then she deserves to get a lower wage. And the point of this is that it isn’t, in fact, sexist. The CEO’s do not HAVE to be misogynistic assholes if they cut the wage of a pregnant woman. They are just being rational-minded profit seekers. If a feminist agenda is going to get in the way of rational, non-sexist, efficiency, then I say feminists need to learn up on their economics.
    I know that it must be really frustrating, and I can only realize my own privilege even more in these situations, but it certainly isn’t a privilege that culture nor society has placed on me. This one is pure nature and biology. It all comes down to marginal productivity and profits.

  • Joe

    The nature of “at-will employment” is that you can be fired for any reason or no reason, you just can’t be fired for a “bad” reason. For instance, if the company said “we’re firing you because you’re preganat” that would be a bad reason (even if you aren’t pregnant). On the other hand if the company says “we’re firing you for no reason” that is legal.
    What it comes down to is this: Why would a company fire a valued employee for being pregnant?

  • platon2043

    Bad idea, surely its not as cut and dry as you suggest. A female doctor can kill patients and they cant fire her because she’s pregnant?
    I’ve got no problem with extra protections to prevent discrimination, but NOBODY should get immunity.

  • Joe

    I disagree with the perception that a pregnant woman is any less productive doing a job than a man who is expecting a child.
    I fully believe that pregnant women are completely capable of providing the same level of solid work as any other person. From that perspective I don’t think it’s possible to make any statement that covers all pregnant women that is not discriminatorily based.
    However, I do believe that any failures to perform should be treated the same as with any other employee, no preferential treatment just because she’s pregnant.

  • Salad

    A woman is hardly “immune”, if she’s totally incompetent she’ll be gone at the end of the four months. I think it’s an excellent policy for “at will” employment where one can typically be fired at any time for any reason (or for no reason). It’s very difficult to prove outright discrimination when there’s at will employment.

  • ShifterCat

    What it comes down to is this: Why would a company fire a valued employee for being pregnant?

    My guess is that they’re making assumptions about how a woman will behave once she’s had a kid. Like, they figure that she’ll be less reliable because she’ll be the primary caregiver. They assume that fathers’ availability won’t change — and there have, as I recall, been cases of men refused promotions because they took time off on special occasions for their kids.
    Even if she has a househusband (like me), her employers might start blaming perfectly ordinary lapses on “mommy brain”. But, of course, if they don’t say that to her face, how can she prove anything?
    What we need is not only to have working anti-discrimination measures, but also measures to make workplaces more family-friendly — affordable daycare, in-building daycare where possible, etc.

  • Salad

    Isn’t it awfully short sighted to punish women for getting pregnant? If every employer did this it would serve as an extremely strong deterrent to having kids. From a purely economic stand point this is a huge concern in countries like Japan where the birth rate is very low and the labor force as shrinking as people retire and there’s no one left to take their place.
    But from a purely economic point of view it’s hard to justify a lot of social justice points of view. It doesn’t make sense for a company that does manufacturing to set up their factory in the United Sates where there are labor and minimum wage laws if they could operate with greater profit margins in countries where they don’t have those restrictions. Human rights be damned.

  • Taq

    Roscoe, of course not being unpaid labor for carrying and/or raising a child is a privilege that society has given you. It’s not biology that decides women aren’t paid for their labor, it’s culture.
    If it was biology that decided whether we got paid for work or not, I’d never have to cash a check because after every work shift, gold coins would fall out of my butt!

  • Steven

    Last year the number of pregnancy-based discrimination charges filed with the E.E.O.C. was up nearly 50 percent from a decade earlier, to a total of 6,285. That number seems likely to rise even higher this year.
    The article is misleading as hell. The increase in the number of EEOC prengnancy discimination charges is a good thing.
    It shows that the law as evolved to the point that it is easier to file a complain and expect reasonable releif on that complaint.
    They aint comparing apples to apples. Either they are ignorant the development of the law or its something else.

  • pinkrobe

    Having worked as an HR generalist for a “small” (900 employee) company, I am willing to bet that one of the top reasons pregnant women are less attractive to an employer has to do with their cost to insurance premiums. As we renegotiated our health insurance contracts, I was asked whether I was aware of any employees with major medical complications, specifically because those individuals actually used their insurance, thus driving up the cost. In my company, there was never any pressure or expectation that pregnant women, older workers or those with chronic/long-term illness would be let go, but its easy to see how targeting those people for layoffs could be the case as a cost-cutting measure for many companies.
    As I told my friend who has recently taken over a week of sick pay and/or worked from home due to complications from two miscarriages, time off is time off. Whatever policy the employer has for sick days / personal days / vacation pay / maternity leave / any other leave, it is YOURS and nobody at work has a right or need to know why you use it. Though her employer has been understanding and generous, I worry for her anyway. Women (everyone, actually) should document EVERYTHING once their employers know they are either pregnant, trying to get pregnant, or have had a kid. As an above poster said, it’s extremely hard to show pregnancy-related discrimination, especially in a “right to work” state. But the bottom line is pregnancy discrimination, like all other forms of Title VIII discrimination is illegal.

  • Lisa

    This is true for a lot of groups outside of pregnant women and was happening long before the economy took a dive. Plenty of people have been fired for “productivity” or “timeliness” or “customer interaction” when in reality the boss just needed an official reason to fire the person because of religious views, political ideologies, sexuality, marital status, race, or any number of discriminatory reasons. The economy offers another justification and also puts employers in a position where they often must choose to terminate someone, and some employers base their choice on their own discriminatory biases.

  • Roscoe

    Oh, ya, I mean, I totally agree with you. I don’t think anyone can make a blanket statement. Just like I don’t think drug use, if handled correctly, can be detrimental to productivity. All I was saying, and that is what I think you summed up in your second/last lines, is that they shouldn’t get preferential treatment. If they are being just as productive, then it’s discriminatory to fire just because of pregnancy. BUT, if productivity decreases because of pregnancy, then it is just as discriminatory to keep her on the same wage.

  • Roscoe

    Good point. I would hesitate to call it “punishing” a woman, rather, it really is just giving her her true productive “worth”. But that’s just semantics, regardless of whether or not it’s a punishment, you are right to point out that it will be a disincentive to have kids. In this case, I would agree that it is in the government’s interest to make sure people are still procreating, but distorting the labor market by giving higher wages than what the market would dictate is not the answer. A better option would be to actually pay women for whatever work they are doing during that time of pregnancy or maternity (ie. pay a woman for being a mother). I’ll touch on this subject when I respond to the below post. Just note that this doesn’t mean all women should be mothers, but those that do should be paid for it (though, it’s not entirely clear that tax breaks received from getting married and having kids isn’t a disguised form of compensation, though I don’t really know the laws about that, so I can’t really say much).

  • Roscoe

    And as for your human rights and minimum wage paragraph: This may sound heartless at first, but minimum wages are actually a huge detriment to many people. By incurring a minimum wage, firms will not magically feel compassion and pay every single worker more money. No, they will be rational-minded profit-seekers and lay people off. Sure, those people who didn’t get laid off have better pay, but those that got laid off don’t have anything now. There is a huge deadweight loss associated with minimum wage. The problem with people who don’t understand economics (and rightly so because they havne’t studied it, I don’t expect them to) is that they have a really romantic view of the solutions to many of these problems. Minimum wage is a great example. At first glance it may seem like a great idea, but when put in practice, it fails miserably. The hard truth is that those people who are working for $1 are $1 better off than they had been if the manufacturer hadn’t set up there. Moreover, one can also make the argument that by keeping industry at home, one is limiting growth, as those people displaced by the outsourcing will have better opportunity to be educated and get more skilled, higher paying jobs. It helps both people out. After you do the math, it really is quite compelling…the following provides examples and charts and stuff.

  • Roscoe

    Touche. Very astute point.
    But that doesn’t mean women should be compensated in the “traditional workplace” for unproductivity. We just need to find a good way to acknowledge and ascribe worth to good mothers. But you see how much more difficult it is to measure mother productivity than physical capital productivity. This has been a question that has been bothering a lot of socialist feminists since they started thinking about how capitalism affected the income distribution. I have no answers, but it’s definitely worth more attention than it gets from the feminist movement(s).

  • Roscoe

    ya, good points. We should stop forcing women to choose between a career and motherhood. We need to convince employers that it may actually be a worthwhile capital investment to provide daycare centers. This is really where, in my opinion, study of social capital is severely lacking. For a long time, physical capital dominated the capitalist paradigm, but very quickly, people began to see that investing in education (ie. human capital) provides the same kinds of returns as physical capital. I think the same should be said about social capital. In other words, people should start investing in making social interactions more fluid and more trustworthy so as to increase efficiency and also to decrease transactions costs (people do this already, I think, with culture crash courses when sending representatives overseas and stuff like that).
    As a broad and more-general-than-feminism idea, we need to start showing people that it is actually in their interest to be altruists.

  • Taq

    Not sure what you’re trying to say. Women are compensated for their “unproductivity” in the workplace in only the same way that people with any other temporary disability are; exactly the same family and medical leave is allowed to both men and women. And the Pregnancy Discrimination Act just says that you can’t treat the disability due to pregnancy any more or less favorably than any other disability.
    So, you can’t choose to discriminate against women for a type of disability that is particular to women. It’s not giving favorable treatment to pregnant women, it was a reaction to the routine firing of workers with a particular temporary disability and the sexism that made it commonplace. It would be weird if men were routinely fired for having prostate cancer and women weren’t fired for an illness that gave them a similar level of disability- but reverse the situation to a disability that’s woman specific and people can’t figure out that it’s sexist.
    Your comments say people with a “feminist agenda” need to realize that letting our employers make a little more cash is WAY more important than our civil rights- and anyway, we shouldn’t get upset because it’s “biology” that decides pregnant women are unproductive. “Biology” also decides that men can be less productive when they are ill. It’s not all right to treat womens’ disability differently than mens'; that attitude is the reason we need these laws.

  • Roscoe

    Ah, interesting. I didn’t realize that argument could be made; about disabilities. I take back what I said. It seems strange to call a pregnancy a disability, in that it is not a pathology, but it is an interesting way of looking at the issue, no doubt. Though, again, it doesn’t HAVE to be sexist, it could just be greed (not that many companies aren’t sexist, I mean, of course there is still sexism).
    Granted, I’m not really one for these kinds of things either, given that they will make the market inefficient. I know it will most likely come out wrong, but I’m really not trying to get more cash into people’s pockets. Market efficiency is something that makes everyone better off, or at the very least, allows there to be redistribution that makes everyone better off. I’m not going to get into the economics of it here, but suffice it to say that instead of having disability laws that just make the market inefficient and force firms to pay for undeserving work and keep other, more qualified people OUT of work, why doesn’t the government just give people with disabilities cash money and stop beating around the bush? In terms of distorting the market, this is the least intrusive and it effectively does the same thing: by virtue of their disability, they get a perk (in the one case it’s getting paid a higher amount than what they “deserve” in terms of productivity, and in the other case, one just gets money by virtue of being disabled)
    A lot of greedy capitalists tend to forget about equality (which is something efficiency says nothing about). My interest is in both, because the more efficient an economy is, the more stuff there is with which to make people more equal.