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Pregnancy Discrimination In The Workplace Target Of New EEOC Crackdown

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WASHINGTON -- During the past week, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has filed four pregnancy discrimination related lawsuits and settled a fifth -- just weeks after the government's workplace discrimination law enforcement arm announced a plan to target employers who illegally discriminate against pregnant women.

On Sept. 20, a California security guard company, Quest Intelligence Group, was sued after a female employee, Tabitha Feeney, was fired from her job during her maternity leave. When Feeney tried to return to work, she was told the company had no open positions, but would call her as soon as it did. Quest never called Feeney, but hired a number of male guards while she waited to return to her job.

"Losing my job and facing a brand-new job search right after giving birth was incredibly stressful," Feeney said in a statement. "I had a new baby to support and no income. I had planned on going back to my job, and it was devastating to lose that."

Also facing a lawsuit this week is Bayou City Wings, a Baytown, Texas-based restaurant chain that allegedly fired at least eight female employees because they got pregnant. According to the EEOC complaint, a Bayou City Wings employee handbook specifically instructed managers to fire pregnant employees three months into their pregnancies. One manager said this was because keeping the women working would "be irresponsible in respect to her child's safety." The manager was also afraid he would be punished "for not following procedures" if he didn't fire the women.

A third suit, also involving a restaurant, was filed against J's Seafood in Panama City, Fla., which was sued Thursday for discrimination after firing two pregnant waitresses, shortly after the women told their manager they were pregnant. "The restaurant told the employees that their pregnancies caused them to be a liability to the company," said the EEOC.

Employee instructions about how to handle pregnancies were also at issue in a fourth case, involving the Muskegon River Youth Home, a juvenile detention center in Evart, Mich. The center currently requires "employees to immediately notify the company once the employee learns she is pregnant, and requires her to produce a certification from her doctor that she is capable of continuing to work." In this case, the EEOC is seeking an injunction to prevent the home from carrying out the policy.

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Cases of women being fired after notifying employers they are pregnant are all too common. Chemcore, a plumbing products company, agreed this week to pay $30,000 to settle EEOC charges that the company fired Marie Simmons, a customer service rep, mere hours after she told a supervisor she was pregnant.

"Too many employers continue to penalize their female work force because of pregnancy," said Delner Franklin-Thomas, district director of the EEOC's Birmingham District, referring to the case against J's Seafood. "This lawsuit sends the message that employers need to hear -- stop discriminating against pregnant employees."

According to Detroit employment lawyer Louis Theros, a partner at Butzel Long, the high turnover rates and decentralized management structure prevalent at chain restaurants and retail stores make them a hotbed of discrimination lawsuits. "Many of the managers have little-to no contact with corporate HR," he said, "and a major question for them is whether they should act independently to 'fix' an issue, or whether they should risk reporting what could reflect badly on them as a manager."

In the cases of illegal policies, like those at Bayou City Wings and Muskegon River Youth Home, Theros said it's unlikely a lawyer reviewed them before they were established, because if they had, the policies would have set off "atomic-level red flags."

Currently, the EEOC only has the resources to prosecute a fraction of the complaints it receives each year. Many more are settled before they get to court through mediation, where the plaintiff gets a monetary settlement and the employer avoids a lawsuit.

But taken together, all five cases likely represent early steps in the EEOC's plan to tackle pregnancy discrimination and employer accommodation of pregnant employees over the coming year, a subject it labels "an emerging issue."

The plan dovetails with efforts by Democrats in Congress to pass the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, a bill which would ensure that pregnant women are allowed the same reasonable accommodations currently available to people with disabilities.

All this comes as good news to Emily Martin, vice president and general counsel of the National Women's Law Center. "I'm very heartened to see the EEOC step up on this," she told HuffPost.

Government action is especially important, she said, because in cases of employment discrimination "the employer has access to a lot of information the employee doesn't have, so it's often difficult for women to even realize they're being discriminated against." This is especially true "when you're talking about lower wage workers, who are less likely to assert their rights, and often more vulnerable to retaliation by supervisors or managers."

Theros also has taken note of the EEOC's interest in pregnancy discrimination, and said he would be making a point of discussing this with his clients.

"If the EEOC has put it on their plates, then my clients would do well to be even more cognizant about what they are doing with pregnant employees," he told HuffPost. "By issuing a strategic plan, the EEOC is essentially shooting a flare, giving employers a heads-up that, 'we're going to push this issue over the next few years.'"

"I've told clients for years that they should consider treating pregnant women's accommodations the exact same way they do with other people with temporary injuries," he said. "But now, do I go back to them and say that recent signs point to a broader scope of accommodation in the future? You bet I do."