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Lawsuit alleges AT&T's absence policies discriminate against pregnant women

FILE PHOTO:    An AT&T logo and communication equipment is shown on a building in downtown Los Angeles, California October 29, 2014.    REUTERS/Mike Blake/File Photo
FILE PHOTO: An AT&T logo and communication equipment is shown on a building in downtown Los Angeles, California October 29, 2014. REUTERS/Mike Blake/File Photo

Two female former employees of AT&T Mobility LLC this week accused the company of discriminating against pregnant women, alleging that they were both fired for missing work because of pregnancy-related medical care. One of the women claims she was fired from her job at a store in Las Vegas for taking time off to deal with her infant son’s emergency medical care, and another alleges she endured discriminatory harassment while pregnant and was fired from an Indiana store two days after returning from maternity leave.

Cynthia Allen and Katia Hills say the subsidiary of telecommunications giant AT&T penalized them under the company’s nationwide “Sales Attendance Guidelines” policy, a “no-fault” system that allows employees to have a certain number of absences without explanation. But the policy also assigns point-based demerits for late arrivals, early departures or absences, and although it exempts a number of absences from the point system — ranging from jury duty to short-term disability — it does not mention pregnancy.

The women allege that AT&T Mobility’s attendance policy discriminates against pregnant women and is a violation of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA), the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). They have filed a class-action lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Indiana; Hills worked at a retail store in Elkhart, Ind.

The AT&T case raises concerns about the legal boundaries of “no-fault” attendance policies, which tend to apply to jobs that offer hourly pay. Such jobs are typically held by the country’s most vulnerable workers, who live paycheck to paycheck, experts said.

Under the PDA, companies cannot treat pregnant and nonpregnant employees differently in extending employment benefits such as exemptions from disciplinary policies. Under the FMLA, which grants up to 12 workweeks of unpaid leave for eligible employees to care for their own serious medical condition or that of an immediate family member, employers may neither interfere with employees’ right to take such leave nor retaliate against them for doing so.

“Workers aren’t machines. They’re human beings,” said Gillian Thomas, a senior staff attorney at the ACLU Women’s Rights Project and co-lead counsel for the plaintiffs. “Human beings get pregnant, they get sick, and they have family members who depend on them for their well-being.”

Marty Richter, an AT&T spokesman, said the complaint is under review and that the company does “not tolerate discrimination of any kind, including for an employee’s gender or pregnancy.”

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The case comes amid a national conversation about family-friendly workplaces and fair pay and benefits for women. The debate has stretched from employees like Hills and Allen in Indiana and Las Vegas to the Senate floor in Washington, where Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., brought her days-old infant to Capitol Hill for a vote in April — the first time that has been allowed.

Hills was employed at an AT&T Mobility retail store in Elkhart, Indiana, from April 2014 until July 2015. She claims in court papers that she was a high-performing employee who had been promoted to a sales position. She became pregnant in October 2014. Her pregnancy resulted in severe nausea and other symptoms that caused her to be late or occasionally miss work, and also required that she attend medical appointments and physical therapy.

She gave birth to her son in June 2015, and two days after she returned from maternity leave the following month, her manager told her that the company had given her demerit points for pregnancy-related absences and fired her. She now has a new job.

“I was so unaware. I had never been pregnant before,” Hills said in an interview this week, noting that the situation blindsided her. “I loved working at AT&T, and I was good at my job and enjoyed it. I was pretty heartbroken. My manager would say, ‘Women don’t come back when they have kids.’ I felt like my career was slipping through my hands.”

She said she also was harassed by a male co-worker, who made disparaging comments about her body during pregnancy.

“I was very, very thin before, and male colleagues would talk about how my body would change and what my husband would like or didn’t like,” Hills said. “To me, this felt very violating. And management was no help. It’s very serious, and I hope anybody who reads this knows they are not the only ones. It has to stop.”

“No-fault” attendance policies can benefit workers, allowing them leave flexibility without having to explain their time away from work, said Cynthia Calvert, an attorney who works with WorkLifeLaw, an advocacy group. But Calvert said the policies should explicitly take into account pregnancy and pregnancy-related conditions.

“These policies are developed on the assumption that all employees can get to work on time and all the time,” Calvert said. “Sometimes they are pregnant, sometimes they have family emergencies, sometimes they are disabled. These policies have to bend.”

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Calvert, who has experience helping pregnant women stay employed, said she frequently hears complaints about how they are treated at work.

“They say ‘My employer won’t give me time off for medical appointments,’ or they force them out by giving them schedules that they know they can’t work,” Calvert said.

The second plaintiff, Allen, worked at AT&T Mobility retail stores in New York City starting in late 2012 before transferring to a Las Vegas store in April 2017. When she became pregnant in March 2016, she sought information about excused absences and FMLA under AT&T Mobility’s attendance policy. She said her questions were met with hostility.

When severe pregnancy-related illnesses required Allen to take time off before her son’s December 2016 birth, she submitted documentation from her health providers and was never informed of any point accruals.

But when she returned from maternity leave in February 2017, Allen was informed she had been put on “final notice” because of the pre-birth absences. The following month, after missing two days to take her son for emergency medical care, she was terminated.

“I was a single mom, and I was so worried about how to pay my bills,” Allen said in an interview this week, adding that she, too, was blindsided when she returned from maternity leave, learning that she had accrued many absence points and that her requests for exceptions were denied. “It felt like we were getting punished ... There are so many women who are scared when they get pregnant. That should never be.”

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