On Tuesday, the Department of Justice (DOJ) filed a lawsuit against the Chicago Board of Education for discriminating against pregnant teachers at Scammon Elementary School.
The DOJ charges that the board “subjected [teachers] to adverse personnel actions, including termination in some instances, after they announced their pregnancies.” Beginning in 2009, it claims that Scammon’s principal fired teachers and threatened to fire them because of their pregnancies and that the board approved six firings of recently pregnancy teachers while forcing two others to leave. The principal also allegedly gave female teachers lower performance evaluations and disciplined them.
In a statement about the lawsuit, Chicago Public Schools spokesman Bill McCaffrey said, “Chicago Public Schools is strongly committed to creating a workplace that values and respects all employees and will not tolerate the kind of discrimination or retaliation that is alleged to have taken place at Scammon Elementary school. Chicago Public Schools intends to defend against the suit and stands behind its commitment to its Comprehensive Non-Discrimination Policy and to the fair treatment of pregnant employees.”
The school’s alleged actions would violate Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination based on pregnancy and childbirth. The DOJ is seeking a court order requiring the board to implement policies that would prevent pregnancy discrimination against employees as well as monetary damages and compensation for the teachers who were harmed.
In a press release, Jenny R. Yang, chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which collaborated with the DOJ on the suit, said, “Despite much progress, we continue to see the persistence of overt pregnancy discrimination, as well as the emergence of more subtle discriminatory practices in the workplace.” In fact, pregnancy discrimination complaints rose 65 percent between 1992 and 2007, with nearly 6,000 filed in 2011. Employers often vilify pregnant workers and rely on stereotypes to justify firing them. And while 80 percent of first-time mothers work into their last month of pregnancy, an estimated quarter million women are denied requests for small accommodations so they can continue in their jobs without risking their health.
The issue has gained even more attention with a case before the Supreme Court in which a woman named Peggy Young is suing the United Parcel Service (UPS) over pregnancy discrimination. Young claims that she was told not to lift more than 20 pounds after she became pregnant, yet the company denied to put her on light duty despite giving accommodations to those with injuries, disabilities, or suspended licenses. UPS has since changed its policies regarding pregnant employees so that they can get light duty work in order to stay on the job.
Walmart has also come under scrutiny. Although the company revised its policies in March under pressure from workers and advocates, a federal complaint filed last week claims that worker Candis Riggins was still discriminated against. Riggins asked to be taken off bathroom cleaning duty while she was pregnant because of the toxic chemicals she had to work with, but she was allegedly fired instead. Other Walmart workers have alleged similar mistreatment.
Women have complained of discrimination at a variety of other employers. One woman is suing Pier 1 for being forced onto unpaid leave rather than given the light duty her doctor required. Another is suing her grocery store employer after she lost her baby because she was denied light duty. Yet another is suing the nursing home where she says she was fired hours after she disclosed her pregnancy.
While this should all be illegal under existing law, as the EEOC recently clarified, the behavior continues. Some states have decided to beef up protections by passing their versions of the Pregnant Worker Fairness Act. A similar law has been introduced in Congress multiple times but hasn’t gone anywhere.
This post has been updated with a statement from Chicago Public Schools.