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Laid off while pregnant?

Careers

Washington - In February of 2013, I was expecting my first child. I hadn't told anyone at work. I worked in a newsroom, and while the other reporters were relatively young, few were working moms.

Then we learned layoffs were coming.

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Picture: Supplied

Layoffs and buyouts aren't uncommon in newsrooms, so I wasn't surprised. Even prestigious, well-known publications face periodic "restructuring." But this time was different. I was pregnant and had a lot more to lose.

For one thing, I was part of the lucky 12 percent of American workers in the private sector who receive paid leave through their employers.

But paid leave is not an option at every workplace. The Family and Medical Leave Act, the primary safety net for maternity leave in America, provides up to 12 weeks of leave after childbirth, and only for companies with 50 or more employees, and only for employees who have been at the organization for 12 months. FMLA does not provide paid leave. States such as California, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Washington have paid leave laws. Nationally, any paid leave a mother receives from a job to birth a child is worked out between her and her employer.

Of course, while the United States lags significantly behind the rest of the world, as the only high-income country that does not mandate paid leave for mothers of newborns, there are still benefits to FMLA: the right to return to your job after 12 weeks away, and the right to keep your health insurance while you're out.

Faced with an imminent layoff, I'd receive neither of these.

Sure, the continued health coverage under COBRA provides an extension of a laid-off employee's health insurance, but at a much higher cost than an employer-sponsored plan, since the employer is no longer contributing to monthly premiums.

Job search

And should I be laid off, I'd be conducting a job search while pregnant. Legally, a future employer cannot ask an employee if she is pregnant or if she intends to get pregnant, nor can an employer deny a woman a position because she is pregnant. But job searches rarely exist in a vacuum. News of job openings are passed through word-of-mouth, referrals are made by associates and colleagues. Even if I managed to keep my pregnancy a secret for a few more weeks, friends (the referring-sort-of-friends one relies on in an unexpected job change) would know. Surveys show that men would rather avoid hiring women of childbearing age, citing the disruption of maternity leave. So would it come as any surprise that even a well-meaning employer would be wary of hiring someone who needed three months off on their first year on the job?

Finally, any pregnant woman who begins a new job while pregnant still wouldn't qualify for FMLA, since she would have been on the job less than one year before having a baby.

Around the same my first trimester ended, the editor I worked for confirmed that job cuts would be coming. I appealed to Human Resources. Does pregnancy confer any special protections?

It does not. Pregnant women are entitled to protection under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, which prohibits an employer from "discriminating" against a woman because she is pregnant. But this discrimination was of the "reasonable accommodations" variety. I'd have more luck asking for a more comfortable chair than I would for job security for the duration of my pregnancy. As the head of human resources explained to me, were I be to laid off, it would mean that my job was eliminated. My previous performance and good work would not be a factor.

In other words, being pregnant would have nothing to do with it.

Laura Brown, executive director of First Shift Justice Project, cautions that layoffs while pregnant can sometimes mask an employer's desire to let a pregnant woman go and avoid paying additional benefits. One way California has possibly fixed that is by starting a paid leave plan, funded by worker contributions to the State Disability Insurance fund. Therefore, it keeps the costs separate from the employer, which may help stop companies from trying to rid themselves of pregnant employees. Other states, including New York and Washington, D.C.'s proposed paid leave plans, rely on a payroll tax.

Vulnerable

A pregnancy is a time of extreme vulnerability where an employer decides if we get paid leave, and for how long, and which health insurance plan will cover our delivery and associated health care costs. If a woman decides against becoming pregnant, or delays becoming pregnant, again it's up to the employer to select health insurance that will cover contraceptives.

And if the employer wants to change business models, or go in another direction, or shrink their newsroom? The few safety nets that do exist for pregnant women, such as FMLA, can vanish overnight.

Read also: Bid for equal benefits for adoptive, surrogate parents

For a pregnant woman on the wrong side of a pink slip, the costs are real. Any change in employment status while pregnant comes at a high price for the mother, without any federal protections. Women still are making 78 cents to a man's dollar (even lower for women of color). Women hold only 15 percent of the executive leadership positions and make up less than 10 percent of the country's top earners. This may be an improvement over the past 30 years, but women are still facing systematic obstacles to upward career mobility.

Our company decided to postpone layoffs in lieu of buyouts. I was offered a buyout, as were all the editors in our newsroom. Enough long-time employees took advantage of the buyouts that no additional layoffs were required. I stayed on, I took maternity leave, I returned to work. More layoffs could come, but I wouldn't have to face them while pregnant. I'd be free to find another job, without having a bump to hide.

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