No Choice Between A Paycheck And Family

By Christine Dinan

A single mother was fired when she needed two days off to care for her daughter following an emergency surgery. She believed she had a right to time off for such unexpected family crises. Her employer had never heard of the Family and Medical Leave Act, and terminated her for job abandonment.

A pregnant worker was fired after she complained about not getting the same parental leave benefits as other employees because her position had been misclassified. At eight months pregnant, she found herself unemployed because she dared to question whether she was being wrongfully denied benefits she believed she was entitled to by law.

These women shared an experience that is all too common, in the District of Columbia and elsewhere: they lost their jobs – and along with them, much-needed income, financial security, and pride – when they could least afford to, as they welcomed new children or weathered family emergencies. Fortunately, at the end of 2017, each of them also shared a peace of mind. With the help of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee and our excellent co-counsel, they were each able to successfully resolve their claims and move forward with their lives.

li familyBut their stories highlight a larger issue, which is particularly salient in this moment of introspection about the experiences of women in workplaces – from factory floors to private residences, from cubicles to government agencies – across the country: pregnancy and parenthood are still seen as incompatible with the working world by far too many backward-thinking employers. I am inspired by our clients’ courage in taking a stand to set them straight.

Over the past few years, the Washington Lawyers’ Committee has focused deeply on addressing workplace discrimination against pregnancy and caregiving. As an Equal Justice Works Fellow, I joined the Committee to work on these issues. Through that work, I have met many women (and some men) who, like the two women whose stories are described above, found themselves in desperate circumstances when the needs of their children, their families, or their own health conflicted with their employer’s bottom line.

That such discrimination persists in Washington, D.C., where we have some of the strongest workplace laws in the country, is troubling, and it underscores the need for education, enforcement, and advocacy in this area. As we stand with our clients, the Committee has educated workers (and their employers) about their rights to receive reasonable accommodations under the Protecting Pregnant Workers Fairness Act; their right to leave under the D.C. Family and Medical Leave Act; and their protection against discrimination on the basis of pregnancy or family responsibilities under the D.C. Human Rights Act. We have advocated for the Universal Paid Leave Act, passed by the D.C. Council with strong support in 2017, to ensure that all D.C. workers are given paid time off to care for themselves and their families when they need it. And when we enforce these rights in court, we ensure that employers understand that all workers, regardless of their position or income, need not choose between a paycheck and their family’s well-being.

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