This week, the auto parts retailer AutoZone dropped its challenge to a verdict ordering it to pay a record-breaking $185 million in damages to a former employee who claimed she was demoted and fired for being pregnant.
Rosario Juarez was hired by AutoZone in 2000 and was eventually promoted to store manager in 2004. But when she became pregnant in September of 2005, she says her manager told her, “Congratulations…I guess,” adding, “I feel sorry for you.” He later tried to get her to step down to a lower role, telling her that she couldn’t handle the responsibilities of running the store while she was pregnant. After her son was born, she was demoted and her pay was cut.
She waited the required year after being demoted to try and get her old position, but the district manager refused to promote her. She then alleged that the company devised a scheme to fire her by having another employee misplace an envelope with cash and then blame it on her. She was fired in 2008.
Juarez’s complaint also claimed that the company has a “glass ceiling” that keeps women from getting promoted. Just 10 of the 98 stores in the San Diego area where she worked had female managers. And at trial, a former district manager testified that a vice president reprimanded him for having so many women in management positions, telling him, “What are we running here, a boutique? Get rid of those women.” Another former district manager testified that at a meeting, executives rejoiced that a previous settlement requiring it to promote women and track it had expired, offering a district manager a promotion if he fired all the women in his stores.
Firing women for becoming pregnant runs afoul of anti-discrimination laws, as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) recently reminded the country’s employers. But it’s still common. Stories like Juarez’s are easy to find: A woman at Waffle House says she was fired after she was told her pregnancy would make her “move too slow.” Another says she was fired after being told to “stay home and take care of [her] pregnancy.” One woman said she was fired two weeks after telling her employer about her pregnancy; another said it only took hours.
Cases of pregnancy discrimination have been rising rapidly over the last two decades, outpacing the pace of women entering the workforce. And many have to do with being fired, as more than 40 percent of the gender-based cases related to discriminatory hiring were about pregnancy over the same time period.
But Juarez’s outcome — a victory and a large sum of money — is not easy to obtain. About 60 percent of the pregnancy discrimination charges filed with the EEOC end up with a finding of no reasonable cause and nearly two-thirds of recent sex discrimination cases end up with the same result.