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Family Responsibilities Can Conflict in Workplace

Business Law

Posted: February 12, 2008 8:23 p.m.
Updated: April 10, 2008 2:01 a.m.

There is no federal law called the “Family Responsibilities Discrimination Act” or the “Caregiver Discrimination Act.” Nonetheless, there has been an increase in claims brought under a variety of federal statutes on behalf of job applicants or workers who assert discrimination by an employer on the basis of family-related decisions. Relevant federal statutes include the Americans with Disabilities Act, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Family and Medical Leave Act. If the employer is a government entity, the claim may be couched in terms of a violation of constitutional rights.

The trend is clear enough that the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission recently published an extensive “Enforcement Guidance” on the subject. (See In it, the EEOC sets out to assist investigators, employees and employers in determining whether a particular employment decision affecting a caregiver may unlawfully discriminate under federal law.


For employers
Some basic recommendations may be gleaned from the EEOC Guidance and relevant court cases. For example, when an employer interacts with, or makes decisions about, a job applicant or an employee, the employer should focus on the requirements for the job, not on the individual’s family circumstances. It is also important for an employer to avoid any tendency to assume that a decision made for the employee’s “own good,” even if made in good faith, can only be seen as benevolent. It could well be considered discriminatory, since an action that an employer sees as generous may be seen by a court as paternalistic and resting on stereotypical thinking.

The EEOC Guidance includes a collection of 20 examples of prohibited discrimination, each of which falls within 1 of 6 categories: (1) sex-based disparate treatment of female caregivers; (2) pregnancy discrimination; (3) discrimination against male caregivers; (4) discrimination against women of color; (5) unlawful caregiver stereotyping; and (6) hostile work environment.

A few of the prohibited scenarios from the examples are illustrative:

• An employee, who is the mother of two preschool-aged children, is passed over for an executive training program, where some of those chosen were not as qualified, and the only people chosen who had young children were men.

• An employer refuses to temporarily relieve a pregnant worker of the part of her job that requires lifting heavy objects, despite her doctor’s advice to avoid such lifting. An investigation shows that the employer previously had allowed the reassignment of lifting duties for both male and female workers due to injuries or other medical conditions.

• Although he is subject to a union contract allowing up to one year of unpaid leave to care for a newborn child, a male teacher is denied his request for such leave, with an explanation that “[w]e have to give childcare leave to women.” The male teacher is told to request the shorter-lasting unpaid emergency leave instead.

• A previously good relationship between an employee and his supervisor deteriorates rapidly when it is learned that the employee’s wife has a severe form of multiple sclerosis. Despite his history of good performance, the employee is removed from projects, subjected to unrealistic deadlines, yelled at in front of his co-workers, and told by the supervisor that the co-workers doubt his ability to do his share of the work, “considering all of his wife’s medical problems.”


In the courts
In one of the leading-edge court decisions, a school psychologist who was denied tenure in her position with an elementary school sued the school district and school officials, alleging that she was subjected to employment discrimination based on gender stereotypes. The employee was terminated after her maternity leave.

A federal appellate court ordered that the case proceed to a trial and, in so doing, it set an important precedent in some of its pronouncements. For example, “sex plus” or “gender plus” discrimination, involving a policy or practice by which an employer classifies employees on the basis of sex, plus another characteristic, such as motherhood, is actionable in a civil rights case brought by a public employee. In other words, it is possible to support a claim based on discrimination against a sub-class of men or women, and not just the class of men or women as a whole.

In addition, the court confirmed that gender-based stereotyped remarks can be evidence that gender played a part in an adverse employment decision. This principle applies as much to the supposition that a woman will conform to a gender stereotype (and therefore will not, for example, be dedicated to her job when she has young children) as to the supposition that a woman is unqualified for a position because she does not conform to a gender stereotype.

The school psychologist claimed that her supervisors repeatedly told her that her job was “not for a mother,” and that they were worried that, as the mother of “little ones,” the employee would not continue her commitment to the workplace. Such decision-making-by-stereotype runs counter to the relevant federal statutes.


John H. Shaffery is a partner of law firm of Poole & Shaffery, LLP, a law firm which provides General Counsel and litigation services to businesses and management personnel. His column represents his own views, and not necessarily those of The Signal. “Business Law” appears Fridays and rotates between members of the Santa Clarita Valley Bar Association.

Copyright: The Signal


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