Pregnant women fighting discrimination in the workplace got a major boost recently, when AutoZone agreed to drop its challenge of a roughly $186 million award that a jury granted a former employee and mom of two in a pregnancy bias case.
The unprecedented award was a result of mistreatment by the auto parts giant of Rosario Juarez, a manager at one of the company's San Diego-area branches, when she was pregnant. According to the complaint, Juarez's higher-ups said she wasn't able to manage a store and grow a baby at the same time, so they persuaded her to go back to her former job at the store, in parts sales, until she gave birth. Right after her son was born, Juarez was demoted. Then she was fired for allegedly misplacing $400 in cash. (A store loss prevention offer later testified in court that she never suspected the mom of any misdeeds; rather, she believed AutoZone was unfairly targeted Juarez.)
Juarez's case is a clear-cut victory in the fight against pregnancy discrimination, as it shows that juries care about protecting moms-to-be in the workplace, says Tom Spiggle, founder of the Spiggle Law Firm based in Arlington, Virginia, and author of You're Pregnant? You're Fired!
"Regardless of what Ms. Juarez ultimately puts in her pockets—and it will no doubt be over a million dollars—the fact remains that a jury was so angry at what AutoZone did to a pregnant employee that it thought the price tag should be well over $100 million dollars, one of the largest verdicts in history for a single plaintiff," Spiggle says. "If nothing else, this verdict shows with an exclamation point, or three, where public sentiment is on pregnancy discrimination. Employers have no doubt taken heed."
Still, that doesn't mean pregnancy discrimination is on its way out. For every Juarez, there are countless other women who are struggling in silence on the job. Spiggle says there are a couple of reasons why some employers discriminate against moms-to-be. "First is classic discrimination," he says. "It is sadly still a common belief that pregnant workers are not as effective as non-pregnant employees. Second is that many women are vulnerable at this point in their careers. Many don't know their rights and, with a baby on the way, they are time-pressured to do other things than read up on the law."
Thankfully, the courts are giving working moms-to-be a bit of support. Earlier this year, the Supreme Court decided, in Young vs. UPS, that employers must treat pregnant employees the same as non-pregnant employees, unless there's a valid, non-discriminatory reason. Though many saw this as a compromise, it's also a bit of leverage women can use to protect themselves in the workplace.
Bonnie Gibbs Vengrow is a New York City-based writer and editor who traded in her Blackberry and Metro card for playdates and PB&J sandwiches—and the once-in-a-lifetime chance to watch her feisty, funny son grow up. Follow her on Twitter, Pinterest, and Google+.
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