Courtnee Dean worked at an Olive Garden in the Philadelphia area for ten years, “doing a bit of everything,” she said. She says she never once had a disciplinary issue.
That changed in October, when she says she was terminated for a lost coupon. She doesn’t think that’s a coincidence. She had just recently informed her manager of a new pregnancy.
Even though she offered to compensate for the coupon, and other non-pregnant workers were put on the watch list for those suspected of misplacing coupons, she was the only one let go. So she’s filed a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Her lawyers from Equal Rights Advocates (ERA), Restaurant Opportunities Centers (ROC) United, and Willig, Williams & Davidson claim the company violated both the Pregnancy Discrimination Act because Dean believes she was fired for being pregnant, as well as the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act.
Darden Restaurants, which owns Olive Garden, would not comment on the specifics of Dean’s employment. “Darden is a values-based company built on a culture of integrity and fairness, respect and caring, and an unquestionable commitment to diversity. We follow all federal, state and local employment laws,” a spokesperson said. He also noted that she has the right to “utilize the company’s robust Dispute Resolution Process in order to have her grievance addressed,” but “Ms. Dean has yet to take advantage of this opportunity.”
Dean says this isn’t the first time she’s had trouble with her former employer over pregnancy. When she had her first child, she came back to find out she was demoted back to the level of being a new hire, which meant she couldn’t get the vacation pay she had stored up. “The second time, it just feels like it’s always something,” she said.
This most recent episode has had a huge impact on her family. Her original plan was to work as much as she could up until she gave birth. “I was trying to work more while I could because I wanted to create some stability in my income,” she said. “But it didn’t work out like that. I got terminated before I was able to create some type of cushion.”
She’s due on Feb. 8 but hasn’t been able to work since she was fired. “At the time I was pregnant. Who the heck is going to hire me when I’m five months pregnant?” Instead, she had to go on leave and apply for unemployment benefits. “I’m the full provider for my family,” she said. The Olive Garden job “was how I made my money.”
Those benefits have already run out, however. “It’s been almost four months, and I’m still trying to make adjustments and changes to my life,” she said.
The lawsuit isn’t just meant to right the wrong for Dean, but to bring wider change. “I just hope that Darden will make the changes that need to be made so this doesn’t happen anymore,” she said. The organizations helping her with her case, ERA and ROC United, say that it’s part of a larger effort to make systematic change at Darden and other restaurants.
Addressing pregnancy discrimination can be an uphill battle, however. Employers routinely vilify pregnant workers and rely on stereotypes, such as the idea that they won’t return to work after they give birth, to justify firing them, even though the majority return to work. And many pregnant women have recently claimed they were fired after revealing their pregnancies. One woman in Mississippi says she was fired on her first day of work at a nursing home just hours after she disclosed that she was pregnant. Another woman claims her employer fired her while she was out on maternity leave. The Department of Justice has even gone after the Chicago Board of Education for firing teachers after they announced their pregnancies.
Women also find themselves forced out despite wanting to work because their employers won’t give them accommodations to stay on the job. Such a conflict is at the heart of a Supreme Court case against UPS, but similar complaints have been made against Walmart, Pier 1, a grocery store, and a nursing home. An estimated quarter million women will have their accommodations requests denied each year.
Complaints of pregnancy discrimination have been growing. They rose 65 percent between 1992 and 2007, and 3,400 were filed with the EEOC last year. A handful of states have passed Pregnant Worker Fairness Acts that require employers to give women accommodations, but a federal bill that’s been introduced multiple times hasn’t moved forward.