Wednesday, August 13, 2008

A lesson in how not to handle a pregnant employee

"Being pregnant here - it's like wearing a scarlet letter 'P' on your chest," 673622_23238788 said Lori Ann DiPalo, 36, the MTA Bridges and Tunnels officer. The New York Daily News reports that DiPalo's physician certified the 10-week pregnant officer as fit for duty without restrictions. Nevertheless, she was stripped of her badge and gun and and banished to tollbooth duty.

A doctor for Bridges and Tunnels read DiPalo's file and decided she shouldn't carry a gun.

"When I asked why, they said they didn't want to risk abdominal injury or me having to use 'deadly physical force,'" she said.

So DiPalo - unarmed but in uniform - now stands in a bridge tollbooth from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. collecting tolls. ...

In her six years as a peace officer, DiPalo has arrested frauds, drunken drivers and other people who had noright to be behind the wheel. She has dispatched officers, handled roll call and patrolled the vulnerable bases of various bridges and entrances to tunnels - considered key targets for potential terror attacks.

"I like my job. I want to work. My doctor said I can," she said.

This paternalistic decision making is exactly the type of employment practice the EEOC sought to combat in drafting its Enforcement Guidance on Unlawful Disparate Treatment of Workers with Caregiving Responsibilities. Per the EEOC:

Employers can also violate Title VII by making assumptions about pregnancy, such as assumptions about the commitment of pregnant workers or their ability to perform certain physical tasks. As the Supreme Court has noted, "[W]omen as capable of doing their jobs as their male counterparts may not be forced to choose between having a child and having a job." Title VII's prohibition against sex discrimination includes a prohibition against employment decisions based on pregnancy, even where an employer does not discriminate against women generally. As with other sex-based stereotypes, Title VII prohibits an employer from basing an adverse employment decision on stereotypical assumptions about the effect of pregnancy on an employee's job performance, regardless of whether the employer is acting out of hostility or a belief that it is acting in the employee's best interest.

This story illustrates an important lesson about the perceptions we hold, consciously or unconsciously, about certain classes of employees. DiPalo was benched out of apparent good intentions. Nevertheless, that decision is not one for the employer to make. It is a decision between the pregnant employee and her doctor. Once the doctor clears her to work, it is out of the employer's hands to say otherwise, even if it has the mother's and baby's best interests at heart.