Reprint permission from the November 4, 2002 issue of Crain's Chicago Business.
A new and especially pernicious form of class warfare is pitting working parents, most of them mothers, against their childless co-workers. Unless employers allow workers to do their jobs without compromising their families' well-being, they may pay a high price.
In fact, some already have.
The state of Maryland, for instance, was sued by a victim of parental discrimination, and the state lost big-time. It was ordered to pay one of its troopers $667,000 in damages because he was denied the leave he requested after his daughter was born. The jury was apparently outraged by the explanation the trooper's supervisor offered — that the trooper's wife would have to be "in a coma or dead" for him to qualify as a primary caregiver.
A Pittsburgh company that was sued was walloped with a $3-million judgment after a chemical engineer it employed was blatantly passed over for promotion because she was a working mother.
The problem seems to be widespread. Federal and state court files reveal all kinds of employment practices that penalize mothers and fathers who are trying to meet their children's needs. Some parents complain they've been denied jobs or promotions. Others have been fired or insist they've been driven to quit.
Yet, too many childless workers take their employers' side. They balk at claims by fellow employees that they've been harassed and discriminated against because they're parents.
Unsympathetic co-workers, who themselves aren't required to balance work and family responsibilities, point to data compiled by the Employment Policy Foundation, among others, which suggest that parents experience a lower rate of unemployment than non-parents, and that parent workers earn more than non-parent workers.
Sometimes, the childless are silently resentful. Other times, they bitterly decry the flextime, job sharing, medical and life insurance packages, child care assistance and other perks that parent workers enjoy, but that they may not. The truth is that working parents aren't coddled, and they're surely not slacking off. For many, family-friendly benefits aren't luxuries; they make working possible.
According to a recent report published by the Washington College of Law at American University, employees have won their parental discrimination suits because the bias they felt in the workplace was flagrant. Employers have proclaimed that, when an employee becomes a mother, she forfeits her right to work and should stay home and take care of her baby, or that motherhood renders her undependable or incompetent.
The good news is that such stereotypes are being vigorously challenged in court. Some parents who have been victimized have brought suits against their employers under Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of sex. Others have relied on the federal Equal Pay Act or the Family and Medical Leave Act, which provides 12 weeks of annual unpaid leave for family care and prohibits employers from discriminating against those workers who use it.
And, in at least two cases, the federal Americans With Disabilities Act figured into a parental discrimination suit. In one of them, a Pennsylvania school was stopped from shifting a full-time teacher to part-time status shortly after her son was born with a disability. In the other case, a New York woman was allowed to prosecute her claim against a company that, she alleged, refused to hire her because her daughter was born with serious health problems.
Being a mom or dad shouldn't be a problem at work or prompt jealousy or conflict between co-workers. Parents who do their best for their children deserve their employers' flexibility and will reward it with greater productivity and lower turnover.
Marc J. Lane ([email protected]) is a Chicago lawyer and financial planner and an adjunct professor of law at Northwestern University School of Law.
Copyright © 2002 by Crain Communications Inc.