Knocking Down the Maternal Wall to Avoid Family Responsibility Discrimination

Work and Life BalanceOn March 8, 2017, International Women’s Day, women all over the US donned red to celebrate “A Day Without Women” and highlight the economic power and significance that women have in the US and global economies and also call attention to economic injustices.

Recent Pew Research Center reports show that such a movement is necessary because despite gains, women remain underrepresented among US political and business leaders and in industries such as technology and engineering. And even putting aside the “glass ceiling,” all too often women face a “maternal wall” that prevents them from ascending the ranks in their organization as they face discrimination as mothers and caregivers.

Over the past few years there has been a marked increase in the number of lawsuits by employees claiming discrimination based on family responsibilities. And it is not just women as men too are facing discrimination. In fact, research from the Center for WorkLife Law out of the University of California, Hastings College of Law states that suits alleging caregiver discrimination have virtually tripled in the past decade, including a:

• 650% increase in eldercare lawsuits;
• 315% increase in pregnancy accommodation lawsuits; and
• an 800% increase in breastfeeding discrimination/ accommodation lawsuits.

Failing to address and prevent family responsibility discrimination can have a negative effect on a company’s bottom line as the employer stands to lose valuable employees and tarnish its brand, reputation and relationships with customers.

On the flip side, a new report from the Northeast Business Group on Health (NEBGH) indicates that offering benefits, services and support to caregivers can have a positive impact not only on employees, but on employers as well. Providing benefits to caregivers can improve employee productivity by reducing stress, lowering health care costs and helping companies retain valuable workers who may otherwise be tempted to leave the workforce.

Thus, there is a strong argument for supporting caregivers in the workplace and overcoming stereotypes and stigmas against mothers, fathers, pregnant women, breastfeeding women and those who take care of elderly parents. That’s why it is imperative to design policies and programs that help retain valuable employees and provide training and mentoring to help them succeed.

Recognize Tremendous Potential for Legal Liability

If employers and supervisors fail to accord caregivers equal treatment, they may face significant liability under various federal, state and local laws, including Title VII; the Americans with Disabilities Act; the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA); and the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA).

What’s more, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has issued guidance regarding caregiver discrimination and suggests best practices such as implementing training and responding to discrimination complaints. A number of states and cities provide specific protections for caregivers, including:

• California;
• Minnesota;
• New York;
• New York City;
• Philadelphia; and
• San Francisco.

There has also been a push towards leave laws that provide assistance to caregivers whether it be in the form of paid sick leave, family or school activities leave. Employers need to be aware of these legal requirements and make sure to comply.

Make Sure Your Policies Support Caregivers

An employer should make sure that it has the proper policies and procedures in place and in its employee handbook to let its workforce know that it protects and supports caregivers. This may include policies on the following:

• Telecommuting;
• Family and Medical Leave (FMLA);
• Time off and leaves of absences including personal leave, paid time off, sick leave, and vacations;
• Eldercare;
• Benefits including healthcare and dependent care; and
• Scheduling.

An employer also should review its compensation, pay and promotion policies to ensure that caregivers receive equal treatment and such policies do not have a negative impact on caregivers.

Provide Reasonable Accommodations and Benefits for Caregivers

Employers need to not only “walk the walk,” but also “talk the talk.” This means being viewed as family-friendly and flexible in coordinating with employees so workers can be both caregivers and productive employees. It also means providing reasonable accommodations and benefits to employees in the form of:

• Leave or time off to care for sick kids and attend doctor’s appointments, participate in school activities;
• Altered or flexible work schedules;
• Job sharing;
Telecommuting and allowing employees to work remotely with the aid of mobile devices;
• Paid sick leave;
• Onsite child care, back up day care or dependent care benefits;
• Employee resource groups for caregivers to discuss common challenges;
• Employee assistance programs providing counseling and support; and
• Breast feeding break rooms.

Showing employees that the employer is committed to having a flexible and accommodating workplace will go a long way to improve productivity and morale. Supervisors should be well-trained on how to handle accommodation requests or changes to the work schedule, and aim to be open, flexible and solution-oriented.

Management Should Take the Lead in Avoiding Stereotypes

The message that caregivers should be treated fairly and not discriminated against needs to come from the top of the organization. This means providing supervisors and managers with comprehensive training on family responsibility discrimination and how to manage caregivers.

It is critical to avoid stereotyping caregivers as “not as committed” or “not as dependable” and to realizes such workers have valuable contributions to make to the organization. Supervisors also should not let preconceived notions and unconscious biases cloud their judgment. Discriminatory actions can be subtle and take the form of:

• Denying new mothers the same workplace opportunities as new fathers;
• Reassigning a new mother to less desirable tasks and assuming she will be less committed to her job;
• Asking applicants whether and when they intend to have children;
• Allowing a female employee, but not a male employee, to leave early to care for her children;
• Steering caregivers into less prestigious or lower paying positions; and
• Failing to consider new parents for promotions fearing family caretaking responsibilities will interfere with performance.




, , ,