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Discrimination lawsuits brought by working professionals tend to draw public attention, but it’s low-wage workers who suffer the harshest consequences in those circumstances, according to a report by the Center for WorkLife Law at University of California Hastings College of the Law. The report, titled “ Poor, Pregnant, and Fired: Caregiver Discrimination Against Low-Wage Workers,” analyses 50 workplace discrimination lawsuits — most resolved during the past five years — brought by low-wage workers. It highlights ways in which employers violate workers’ rights. Author Stephanie Bornstein, deputy director of the center, said that low-wage breadwinners often face more caregiver demands from children and older family members, but often have less social support — in part, because they are more likely to be single parents. “Caregiver discrimination lawsuits brought by low-wage workers document clearly that work-family conflict is not just a professional women’s problem,” Bornstein said. “In fact, it’s most acute and extreme for low-income families. To help move families out of poverty, we can’t just focus on fixing the worker. We also need to look at how caregiver discrimination in low-wage jobs undercuts economic stability.” The report concludes that women transitioning out of the welfare system into the workforce often are caught in a cycle of entry-level employment because they lose jobs as a result of family responsibilities. “This underscores the fact that we need to look at the jobs themselves, not just the job-readiness of those coming out of the welfare system,” Bornstein said. Among the problems low-wage workers face is that their jobs often come with too few hours, leading them to juggle multiple jobs. Those jobs can come with unpredictable or inflexible schedules. Not only that, low-income families are less likely to have access to paid sick days or unpaid family or medical leave, the report concludes. Private employers are not required to provide sick days or vacations, except in San Francisco, Milwaukee and Washington. Companies put themselves at financial risk when they maintain policies that violate workplace laws, the report warns. Caregiver discrimination lawsuits have a higher success rate than overall employment discrimination suits, and the average verdict awarded among cases the center analyzed was $500,000. Those cases included that of a worker at an aerospace parts company who received a $761,279 settlement after he was fired as a result of absences to care for his son, who has AIDS. A housekeeper was awarded more than $2.5 million — later reduced to $1 million — when she was fired for not returning from maternity leave prior to an agreed-upon date. A delivery driver was awarded more than $2.3 million when she was fired after announcing that she was pregnant, which led her to consider undergoing an abortion. According to the report, the most common employment discrimination suits brought by low-wage plaintiffs involved pregnancy discrimination. Bornstein wrote that it is “far too common” that low-wage women are fired on the spot after reporting to an employer that they are pregnant. Additionally, pregnant women are sometimes banned from certain positions while pregnant, regardless of their capabilities, particularly in the restaurant industry. Some employers refuse to make even small adjustments for pregnant workers. “Some of the things that these employees needed — I’m thinking of a case where an employer refused to allow a retail worker to carry a water bottle with her while she suffered bladder and urinary tract infections during her pregnancy — cost employers virtually nothing. It’s surprising how inflexible these employers can be,” Bornstein said. She professed shock that employers encouraged pregnant low-wage workers to obtain an abortion to keep their jobs. In many cases, low-wage workers don’t know or understand the protections afforded caregivers under state and federal family and medical leave laws. That is one reason caregiver discrimination is often seen as a particular burden on professional women, Bornstein said — higher-paid workers are more likely have access to human resources departments and union representatives to which they can take grievances. “Low-wage workers don’t have those intermediaries providing them with information about their rights,” she said. Contact Karen Sloan at [email protected].

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