New Jersey Woman Alleges Pregnancy Discrimination While EEOC Calls for Updates to Laws

PHOTO: Dr. Mary Beamer, 41, from New Jersey alleges her employer engaged in pregnancy discrimination with a trial scheduled for the spring.
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Dr. Mary Beamer, 41, said she was fired because she missed 11 days of work after complications from her pregnancy. After she sued for sex and pregnancy discrimination, her employer counter-sued for $50,000, saying she broke a four-year employment contract.

Beamer is suing for an unspecified figure for back and front pay, with 2.5 years left from her employment contract, punitive damages, compensatory damages, and attorneys fees and costs.

Worker advocates say Beamer's case represents inconsistency in enforcing pregnancy discrimination laws, which the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has said is a "long overdue" issue.

Beamer, a chiropractor based in Pennsylvania, began working at Herman Chiropractic Center in Waynesboro in January 2006. She notified her employer that she was pregnant in February 2007, and then missed 11 days of work because of hyperemesis gravidarum, which is a severe form of morning sickness that can cause dehydration, her court filing states.

After various doctor appointments, visits to the emergency room and submission of doctors notes, Beamer called her employer March 26, 2007, stating that she was coming into the office.

Beamer said the owner of the practice told her, "I don't want you coming back to the office because I don't like how you are running it."

Her employer cancelled her health insurance benefits within days of the phone call, Beamer said, adding that she never received a termination letter. The employer hired her replacement in early April, she said.

According to her employment agreement, if Beamer left her job before the end of the four-year period, she was required to pay $50,000 for training and lost patient services. Her employer is counter-suing for that amount.

Beamer filed discrimination claims with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission and sued for pregnancy and sex discrimination. While many discrimination cases get dismissed on summary judgment, Beamer's case will get a jury trial, scheduled for May.

With her daughter almost 5 years old, her attorney, Lisa Matukaitis, said it can take a woman this long to get through the court system.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) hosted a public meeting on the subject of pregnancy discrimination and caregiver issues Wednesday morning in Washington, D.C. The commission invited experts to testify about recent trends in discrimination against pregnant workers and workers with caregiving responsibilities.

Commissioner Stuart Ishimaru said the issue was "long overdue."

Constance Barker, one of the EEOC commissioners, said that if there is still direct pregnancy discrimination, "we have failed as a commission."

Emily Martin, vice president and general counsel with the National Women's Law Center, said more women work during later stages of pregnancy now than before, but still face obstacles at the workplace.

During the meeting, Martin called for the EEOC to issue guidelines for courts and employers, which have found confusion in the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, or Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which makes it illegal to discriminate against a woman "because of pregnancy, childbirth or a medical condition related to pregnancy or childbirth."

Martin said court enforcement of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act has been "inconsistent." Other experts have said there is still work to be done regarding the Americans with Disabilities Act and Family and Medical Leave Act regarding maternity and paternity leave.

When the EEOC asked the meeting's panelists why discrimination continues to persist 35 years after the Pregnancy Discrimination Act was passed, Joan Williams, law professor and director of the Center for Work Life Law at the University of California-Hastings, said the stereotype regarding gender and caregiving are "very strong."

"Although nobody says, 'This is not a suitable job for a woman,'" Williams said, "They say, 'This is not a suitable job for a mother.' That is discrimination."

Beamer's former employer said it was not required to provide maternity leave as a small employer because the Family and Medical Leave Act applies to employers with "50 or more employees for each working day during each of 20 or more calendar workweeks in the current or preceding calendar year."

Herman Chiropractic declined to comment.

According to Beamer's court filing, her former employer, Dr. Larry Herman, recalls their last conversation differently. He remembers asking Beamer if she were able to return to work and she stated she was not coming back or able to do so, the filing states.

"Dr. Herman understood this to mean that she was quitting," the court filing states.

Now living in New Jersey with her husband and daughter, Beamer said she did not just lose a job, she "lost almost everything," including her income and health insurance. She said she lost her marital home and had to move into her sister's basement.

"My daughter is now 4, and I still have not been able to get another position like the one I lost," she said. "No woman should ever have to lose her job, insurance and career because she gets pregnant."

Matukaitis, Beamer's attorney, said instead of complying with "even simple, pregnancy-related medical restrictions, all too often we see employers seize the opportunity to rid themselves of the supposed liability pregnant workers pose to them."

Matukaitis said she has seen that pregnant women are losing their jobs because they might need to use the bathroom "more frequently than 'normal,' and because they may need to sit down periodically. They are losing their jobs because they need to pump breast milk to feed their babies."

Donnicia Venters of Houston said she lost her job after she requested to pump breast milk in a backroom at her job with a debt collection agency. A judge recently ruled that was not sex or pregnancy discrimination.

Matukaitis said cases such Beamer's are more common today than they were decades ago.

"When working women become pregnant, many have expressed feeling as if they are walking a proverbial tightrope and could lose their jobs at any second," she said. "When pregnant women are fired from their jobs, everyone suffers."

Matukatitis said a result of pregnancy discrimination and mothers' losing their jobs could be increased applications for government benefits, including unemployment compensation, medical assistance, and the federally funded Women, Infants and Children nutrition program.

"Pregnant workers and their families desperately need protection from the government to regulate and hold these employers accountable for their actions," she said.

Sharon Terman, senior staff attorney at the Legal Aid Society Employment Law Center's Gender Equity Program, said harassment of low-wage pregnant women in particular is "quite common."

"And women of color experience discrimination not just on pregnancy but on race and national origin as well," she said.

Terman also said forced leave occurs early on in pregnancy when a woman wants and needs to keep working.

"Then when a woman does need to leave, she has already exhausted her time off," she said.

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