Union says collective bargaining protects pregnant women

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WASHINGTON - With business discrimination against pregnant female workers still widespread - despite federal legislation outlawing it - the Service Employees contend one of the best ways to battle it is through collective bargaining and union contracts.

At a federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission hearing on the issue in mid-February, SEIU Associate General Counsel Maryann Parker said the union's aid is particularly helpful to women in low-wage jobs - the very workforce that SEIU is campaigning to organize. But union bargainers must keep the battle against pregnancy discrimination, and similar work-life issues, atop their agendas, she added.

EEOC called the session to review progress, or lack of it, in battling business discrimination against pregnant women. Peggy Mastroianni, an EEOC counsel who specializes in the issue, said pregnancy discrimination was first outlawed by Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and further outlawed by the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) 14 years later.

Outlawing it hasn't changed culture, though. "Over the past ten fiscal years, EEOC and state and local fair employment practices agencies received 53,865 charges alleging pregnancy discrimination, resolved 52,396 charges, and obtained $150.5 million in monetary benefits" for women who suffered the discrimination, she said.

Those women include "senior executives, managers, bookkeepers, teachers, truck drivers, bartenders, customer service representatives, exterminators, housekeepers, administrative assistants, and janitors. Respondents range from small businesses to mid-sized organizations to Fortune 500 companies, representing a wide variety of industries throughout the country and the world.

"Between 68 percent and 71 percent of pregnancy discrimination charges include allegations of discharge based on pregnancy," while another 18-25 percent "include allegations of disparate terms and conditions of employment based on pregnancy," Mastroianni said.

Parker told the commission that union contracts protecting the female workers could help bring such discriminatory practices to a halt.

"Unions actualize workplace policies and laws. They play a "facilitation" role. Much as industrial unions did in 1978 in the first wave of PDA implementation, today's unions help workers learn and insist upon their rights on the job, ensure enforcement of workplace laws and contract provisions, and protect workers from retaliation," she said.

Parker cited a recent first contract that SEIU Local 509 in Massachusetts reached in 2010 with Sullivan & Associates, a direct care firm that provides services for the disabled. The pact covers 500 workers. It includes wage increases for the low-paid caregivers - and a lot more.

Other provisions cover flexible shifts and how to cover them, work-life accommodations, a grievance procedure to sort out such issues, and a joint labor-management committee to solve the problems in advance, Parker said.

She also pointed out other forms of insidious pregnancy discrimination that unions battle.

Data from the Center for Worklife Law, Parker told the commission, included one case where "an employer lacked 'just cause' to fire a mental health aide with nine years' seniority when she refused mandatory overtime because her babysitter could not stay, and her employer would not allow her children to sleep at the workplace."

Other cases saw the EEOC "reduce a father's discharge to a suspension for declining an assignment because he had to pick up his daughter, and a third where EEOC reversed the firing of a telephone installer who left work to pick up her child rather than risk her child's safety, or jeopardize her child care arrangements," she said.

"Those workers - however difficult their family situations - are relatively lucky, because they had access to union representation and just cause provisions. Non-unionized workers in similar situations are far more vulnerable to job loss and discipline, just as the Sullivan workers were before reaching their CBA," Parker said.

"Low-wage workers and their unions may see work-life balance as a luxury issue secondary to their primary goal of improving wages and benefits. As the Sullivan experience illustrates, however, low-wage workers balance work and family responsibilities on a fine edge, and their needs for solutions are real and acute," she declared.

"The union's unique ability to deliver some measure of job security and stability should be a powerful reason for workers to join a union organizing drive."

But Parker also had a word of advice for her union colleagues. She said collective bargaining terms "that protect workers' ability to balance work and family without penalty should be top priorities for union bargaining teams," a point that has been a longtime top cause of the Coalition of Labor Union Women.

"As they did in the wake of enactment of the PDA, workers and their unions can and should facilitate implementation of best practices to accommodate the family responsibilities at all American workplaces," she concluded.

Photo: Jackson, Fla. nurses from the Women's Health Center blow whistles to show support for SEIU. Emily Michot/The Miami Herald and AP Photos

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