Balancing work and family. Post-maternity leave layoffs prompt court action

REMEMBER when motherhood and apple pie were sacrosanct? Well, luscious baked goods from homemakers' ovens may still enjoy such esteem. But some of the bearers of our children are now toughing it out in court -- particularly in respect to their rights in the workplace. Take Lillian Garland and Linda Wimberly, for example.

Both took maternity leaves from their jobs to expand their families. And both ended up unemployed. The former was a receptionist at a Los Angeles bank; the latter served as a cashier in a Kansas City, Mo., department store.

Mrs. Garland and Mrs. Wimberly ran up against policies that allowed their bosses to deny them reinstatement. So they filed legal claims of discrimination -- which have now reached the US Supreme Court in separate actions.

Of course, the justices are considering broader questions than the personal plights of Garland and Wimberly. Among them: Was the main intention of the Federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 to outlaw policies that resulted in job discrimination against women who became pregnant?

Does federal ``disability'' law (as applied to maternity leaves) require equal treatment for both men and women -- thus barring preferential treatment for pregnant workers? And do state laws that mandate work-leave preferences for pregnant women discriminate against other women?

The outcome of these cases could have a sweeping impact. There are more than 47 million women employed in the United States. And an estimated 85 percent of this group become pregnant at least once during their working lives.

At issue in the California case (which the Supreme Court heard earlier this month) is a state statute that requires firms to give pregnant women up to four months of unpaid leave.

When she returned from maternity leave and was told that there was no job open for her, Lillian Garland claimed job discrimination based on this law.

But the bank that employed her challenged the state statute as discriminating in favor of women by requiring unpaid maternity leave. The bank's position was that California law did not conform to federal law, which mandates equal treatment in the workplace for both men and women.

Although a district court took the bank's side and invalidated the state statute, the Ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated it, holding that the lower court ruling ``defies common sense, misinterprets case law, and flouts'' the clear intent of Congress.

Women's groups have been as divided on the issue as the judiciary. Some have argued that it is ridiculous to allow an employer to use a federal law designed to stop discrimination against pregnant women as a means to nullify a state law also designed to help pregnant women.

But others, including the National Organization for Women (NOW) and the American Civil Liberties Union, say they have mixed emotions about the California statute because it contains the kind of ``sex biased'' distinction which, they say, the proposed Equal Rights Amendment would have wiped out.

NOW wants the Supreme Court to extend to all ``disabled'' employees the special benefits mandated by state law for pregnant workers.

Some business groups, however, backed by the federal Justice Department, are asking the high tribunal to invalidate California's pregnancy statute -- and similar statutes in eight other states -- which they say illegally discriminate in favor of women.

While Lillian Garland is asking the Supreme Court to uphold an appellate court ruling, Linda Wimberly wants the justices to overturn a decision of the Missouri Supreme Court.

At issue in Wimberly's case is whether states must pay unemployment benefits to women who are not reinstated in their jobs after taking maternity leaves. Missouri's highest court, by a 4-to-3 vote, said that federal law does not show unequivocally that Congress intended to insure unemployment benefits to women in such circumstances.

Wimberly had earlier successfully argued before a state trial judge and state appeals court that Missouri policy violated a portion of the Federal Tax Act of 1978 requiring that ``no person shall be denied [unemployment] compensation under . . . state law solely on the basis of pregnancy or termination of pregnancy.''

Wimberly, like Garland, returned from a maternity leave and was told there were no positions available. After seeking unemployment benefits -- and being denied them under Missouri policy -- she went to court.

At least three other states and the District of Columbia take a position similar to Missouri's. However, four years ago, the Fourth US Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in a South Carolina case that the 1978 federal law required states to provide benefits to women denied reinstatement after maternity leaves.

A year later, this decision was left intact by the US Supreme Court. But three justices voted to study the disputed law more closely.

Wimberly -- whose case has not yet been heard by the high court -- now says that a definitive ruling would help working women plan their families and adjust their lives in accordance with realistic expectations.

A Thursday column

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