04/11/2013 05:07 pm ET Updated Jun 10, 2013

A Mother's Day Gift That Counts: Better Treatment at the Workplace

Earlier this year, many women's rights advocates celebrated the 20th anniversary of the Family and Medical Leave Act, which has made it possible for many women, including mothers-to-be and the mothers of a newly adopted or newly placed child, to take job-protected time off.

The bad news is that despite the FMLA and other laws that prohibit employers from treating pregnant women less favorably than others, allegations of discrimination against pregnant workers are increasing. In 2012, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission received more than 3,700 complaints from mothers-to-be, a 35 percent increase from 2001. Of course it's normal for a large portion of these grievances to get thrown out at the early stages, the claimants failing to provide convincing evidence that their boss did anything wrong. But many plaintiffs -- mostly waitresses and other low wage workers who had the gall to tell their boss they were pregnant -- were awarded tens of thousands of dollars in backpay and other relief.

To be sure, much has improved for pregnant workers since the mid-1970s, when the Supreme Court said it was OK for an employer to exclude pregnancy from its disability benefits plan. As a result of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act -- passed to reverse the impact of the Court's 1976 ruling in General Electric Co. v. Gilbert -- employers must treat pregnant workers the same as other similarly situated employees. The PDA was intended to put a stop to employers denying benefits to a mother-to-be or refusing her request for light duty, if the same would be granted to another worker who isn't pregnant. And it was supposed to end to the once-common practice of singling-out pregnant workers for mandatory leave.

More recently, the awkwardly named Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act of 2008 made it easier for women with a serious pregnancy-related impairment such as preeclampsia (a type of high blood pressure that can require complete bed rest during pregnancy) to qualify for additional unpaid leave or other workplace accommodations.

And thanks to health care reform, nursing mothers whose jobs would otherwise keep them tied to their desk or work station are guaranteed breaks to express milk.

But here's the thing. There are still plenty of old school employers who don't know, or don't care, that things have changed. It took a lawsuit to convince a private detention center in Michigan to quit requiring pregnant employees to report their pregnancies to their bosses and get a doctor's permission to continue working. Until the employer agreed to settle last fall, women who could not provide such a note were required to take leave throughout their pregnancy and couldn't return until a month after the pregnancy.

Late last year, the EEOC settled with an Arizona bar once it agreed to put pregnant women back on its Sunday schedule. Up until then, the bar wouldn't schedule pregnant women for its most lucrative shift because it believed its male customers didn't like being served beer by women who flaunted their gestational status.

This March year, the owner of a Comfort Inn motel franchise settled a discrimination lawsuit by agreeing to pay more than $27,000 in backpay and compensatory and punitive damages after it allegedly told a pregnant worker she could not be allowed to continue working as a housekeeper because of the potential to harm the development of her baby.

Some employers simply make life miserable for pregnant workers. Between 9 and 13 percent of pregnancy discrimination charges include allegations of pregnancy-based harassment, according to one EEOC official. In one such complaint, an employee at a security services company alleged that her supervisor speculated with co-workers about whether she was pregnant, stated he wanted her off of the contract because of her childbearing status and warned her that she "better not get pregnant again."

In another case, a bookkeeper who claimed that the company owner repeatedly insisted that her pregnancy was a joke, described her maternity leave as a "vacation" and asserted that maternity leave should be limited to two days.

Besides pregnancy discrimination -- which EEOC recently made an enforcement priority -- there's another troubling workplace trend: discriminating against anyone caring for a family member.

Dubbed caregiver discrimination, it involves an employee who is fired, denied job opportunities, retaliated against or otherwise treated less favorably because of family caregiving responsibilities. Of course men as well as women can be affected by caregiver discrimination. But given that most caregivers are women, it's their livelihood that is most often at stake.

The number of caregiver discrimination cases claims is rising so quickly -- sometimes resulting in large judgments against employers -- that since 2007 the EEOC has issued two sets of guidance warning employers about the practices most likely to land them on the wrong end of a discrimination lawsuit.

Many caregiver discrimination cases are an offshoot of sex discrimination. A classic fact pattern involves a mother who is denied a job or a promotion that was available to male colleagues with young children, or was reassigned to less desirable projects after giving birth, based on the assumption that as a new mother, she will be -- or should be -- less committed to the job.

Still others violate disability rights laws, for instance when a boss refuses to hire a mother who is the primary caregiver for a disabled child because he believes the applicant's caregiving duties will distract her from her job.

In a few weeks, many of us will be celebrating Mother's Day with chocolates and flowers and maybe toasting Mom with a mimosa over brunch. But in an economy where women make up half the workforce perhaps what Mom really needs -- what we all need -- is a boss who knows the law and is willing to follow it.

Rita Zeidner, a freelance writer in Arlington, Va. has been writing about the workplace for more than 20 years.