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Family-leave laws spur rise in complaints

Hillary Wicai Dec 20, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: It’s not like you can put an actual date on it, but there was a point where sexual harassment made the move from bad taste to illegal. Companies scrambled to train their managers and their employees. That’s made for a whole new area of antidiscrimination cases. And once again companies and their lawyers are looking for ways to respond. From the Marketplace Work and Family Desk, Hillary Wicai reports.

HILLARY WICAI: Heather Albano started her career selling Clarins cosmetics at the mall. It took her 13 years to work her way up to manager overseeing $280 million worth of billing.

Three years ago, after her daughter was born, Clarins offered Albano part-time work.

They say a baby changes everything. But Albano says she wasn’t prepared for it to change her boss’ attitude. He asked if she and her husband planned to have more children. Albano said yes, and shortly after that was fired.

HEATHER ALBANO: He basically said the part time wasn’t working out for him. And they never said, “Why don’t you come back full time?” because I certainly would have done that. I had 15 minutes to pack everything and I was escorted out of the building.

Clarins had no comment. Albano’s suing under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act. That act is part of a larger body of law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, gender and age. Her lawyer, Jack Tuckner, says workers like Albano have the right to sue.

JACK TUCKNER: The culture of the workplace does not support the notion that women should be able to go out, bear a child, come back and then balance family issues.

This type of story isn’t limited to moms. Take 44-year-old Andrew Barton: He and his wife got fired.

ANDREW BARTON: Morally, it’s just not right what they did to me.

The couple worked for a drug maker in Utah. When Barton’s mom died after a horseback-riding accident, the Bartons asked for two weeks of unpaid leave. They had to care for his dad who was on dialysis because his mom used to do that. The CEO told Barton to take the time he needed. But he fired the couple after just one week.

BARTON: So we ended up selling our house. My wife was devastated. She, uh, almost went off the deep end.

Barton sued under the Families and Medical Leave Act. The Center for WorkLife Law calls it a classic Responsibilities Discrimination case. Suits like this have grown by 400 percent in just the past decade. Workers like Barton and Albano are suing when family caregiving obligations end up costing them a job or promotion.

Consuelo Pinto with the Center says people are now suing for being discriminated against as caregivers and not just on the basis of gender. Pinto offers the example of an employee who asks for intermittent leave to care for a disabled child.

CONSUELO PINTO: When the employer gets that request they need to think we need to make sure that we’re not somehow retaliating against this person, that if we’re changing job responsibilities or transferring her that there’s a legitimate business reason for doing that.

Pinto says the lawsuits have twice the success rate as other employment discrimination cases. Employment attorneys say that’s one reason employers need to pay attention. Companies need to change because the workforce is changing. Amy Bess is an employment attorney and an employer herself.

AMY BESS: We have employees who might have young children at home. More men have family obligations in caring for children these days than ever before. But then similarly you have very senior employees in the workplace who are now facing obligations to care for elderly parents.

Early next year, the Center for WorkLife Law will roll out training in this field for employment lawyers. Consuela Pinto says it’s like the late 1990s when companies felt like they suddenly had to deal with sexual harassment.

PINTO: When the Supreme Court issued the big sexual harassment cases, a lot of employers really got caught off guard. Because now you have the Supreme Court saying if you want to have a defense, you need to have a policy, you need to have trained people, you need to have a complaint procedure.

And, she says, families responsibilities discrimination cases are also pushing companies to come up with policies and procedures.

In Washington, I’m Hillary Wicai for Marketplace.

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