Lawsuit: Forced on maternity leave, forced to return before baby is due
This post has been updated. See note below.
Follow me down the rabbit hole for a moment while we discuss the case of Kimberly Erin Caselman, a Pier 1 sales associate in San Jose who loves her job and informed her boss in November that she was two months pregnant with her second child.
On the recommendation of her obstetrician, Caselman, 31, also informed Pier 1 that she was not to lift any objects heavier than 15 pounds, or climb ladders. Her pregnancy is not high-risk, but that seemed prudent, and not particularly limiting. Pier 1, according to Caselman, responded appropriately, putting her on eight weeks of “light duty.”
When that eight-week period ended, Caselman, who has worked at Pier 1 since November 2011, asked for an extension.
According to a class-action discrimination lawsuit filed Wednesday morning in Santa Clara County Superior Court, Pier 1 Imports Inc. refused to extend the accommodation. Instead, in January, she was put on unpaid medical leave.
That’s right; she was put on maternity leave. For four months. Ending in May.
Did I mention her baby is not due until July 7?
“It’s shocking,” Caselman told me by phone this morning. “They are having me exhaust all my leave before I need that leave. This is stressful financially and emotionally.”
It is also, her attorneys at the Legal Aid Society’s Employment Law Center contend, a blatant violation of California law. In this state, it is illegal for employers to refuse to provide “reasonable accommodation for an employee for a condition related to pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical condition, if she so requests, with the advice of her healthcare provider.”
Caselman, who is seven months’ pregnant, had intended to work through her pregnancy, take a leave, then return to the job. Now her status is up in the air. If she does not return to work on May 20, when her maternity leave ends, she is afraid she will be fired.
“What’s outrageous about this case,” said Caselman’s attorney Sharon Terman of the Legal Aid Society, “is that pregnant workers are being forced out of their jobs when they’re perfectly able to keep working, and it’s happening at a time when they most need their income, when they are growing their family.”
Terman said she and her colleagues frequently get similar complaints from women, but that employers, once informed of the law, generally make accommodations.
“We’ve had quite a bit of of success because California law is so clear,” Terman said.
Maybe not to everyone.
I emailed three Pier 1 spokespeople for a response to the lawsuit, but did not hear back.
[UPDATED at 4:42 p.m. PDT, April 16: Pier 1 Imports spokeswoman Jennifer Engstrand later responded to say that the company does not comment “on specific legal matters.”]
The Pier 1 case is hardly unusual, said Emily Martin of the National Women’s Law Center, and is symptomatic of a larger, national disgrace.
“The problem that this case is responding to is unfortunately, a problem we see over and over, around the country, of women who have some sort of temporary physical restrictions because of pregnancy who are denied accommodations by their employer—even if the employer would provide those accommodations if the woman had a disability or an on-the-job injury,” said Martin. “But because pregnancy is the reason she needs the accommodation, plenty of employers think it’s OK just to say no.”
The National Women’s Law Center is pushing passage of a federal Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, which would close loopholes in the 35-year-old federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act. The loopholes have allowed courts to uphold the right of employers to fire women who have sought reasonable accommodations during pregnancy.
In Kansas, for instance, a court said it was OK for Wal-Mart to fire Heather Wiseman because, on her doctor’s advice, she carried a water bottle to stay hydrated and avoid repeated urinary tract infections. Only cashiers, the retailer said, were allowed to have water bottles on hand at work.
In Oklahoma, Dollar General fired Tashara Persky because she could not lift more than 15 pounds, which the retailer claimed was an essential function of her store clerk job.
California, said Martin, has been a trailblazer in laws that protect pregnant women against job discrimination, and has inspired a number of states, and even cities, to pass similar protections.
But clearly, not all employers understand that you cannot discriminate against a woman because she is pregnant.
It’s a lousy way to treat loyal employees, a lousy way to treat young families and a lousy message to women in the workplace.