Job Discrimination: Who Gets Hurt the Most

Last Updated Apr 1, 2011 10:51 AM EDT

As the Supreme Court decides whether or not a massive discrimination suit against Wal-Mart should go forward as a class action, a study from the Center for WorkLife Law provides further evidence that it's low-income families who suffer the most from workplace discrimination.

The study is based on an analysis of the Center's database of 2,600 family responsibilities discrimination lawsuits. Only 37 percent of those suits were from caregivers in professional, managerial or business sectors. The report draws most heavily from 50 suits brought by low-wage workers. In these suits, caregivers claim they were unfairly penalized at work because of responsibilities at home. Among other unsavory practices, the report found:

  • Extreme hostility to pregnant women. In these suits, women claimed they were fired on the spot when their supervisor found out they were pregnant, or companies refused even basic accommodations to pregnant women (such as allowing them to carry water bottles). The relatively high number of such cases doesn't necessarily mean this form of discrimination is more prevalent than others. Instead, it may mean it's easier for low-wage women to get legal representation when the alleged discrimination is more blatant.
  • A total lack of flexibility in low-wage jobs. I've always wondered how hourly workers manage if their kids get sick or a family member suddenly needs them. That shows you how naïve I've been. The report says that in many cases, low-wage employers give caregiver employees no slack whatsoever, enforcing rigid attendance policies even in emergencies. Less than one-third of working parents making less than $28,000 a year have access to flextime, compared to two-thirds of those making more than $71,000.
  • Harrassment and denial of legal rights. Yes, some supervisors will encourage pregnant women to get abortions or pile on new responsibilities the pregnant woman can't possibly meet, forcing her out of a job. Employers often fail to inform employees of their right to family and medical leave as well.
  • Men don't fare any better. Low-income men aren't discriminated against because of pregnancy, of course, but those who care for children or elderly parents at home are subjected to stereotyping and harassment.
  • Women of color fare worse, with pregnant women of color denied accommodations that white women are granted.
What about Family Medical Leave?
Many of these workers are not covered by the Family Medical Leave Act, nor do they have any sick time they can draw upon. FMLA covers only half of low-wage workers, and even those who are covered have to be able to go without wages while they're on leave. Only local laws in San Francisco, Milwaukee, and Washington D.C. require employers to provide any sick time at all. Three quarters of the lowest-wage workers don't get any sick days, and only 11 percent have sick days they can use to care for sick children.

Those low-wage workers who prevail in court do sometimes win multi-million dollar verdicts, which should be enough to make a shady employer reconsider. Even the average settlement analyzed by the Center for WorkLife Law was $500,000.

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Kimberly Weisul is a freelance writer, editor and consultant. Follow her on twitter at www.twitter.com/weisul.
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    Kimberly Weisul is the co-founder of One Thing New, the free email newsletter for smart, busy women. She was previously Senior Editor at BusinessWeek, responsible for all coverage of entrepreneurship and for launching BusinessWeek SmallBiz, a bimonthly magazine. She is also a freelance writer, editor and editorial consultant.