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March 30, 2011 6:26 PM

Study Examines Factors in Discrimination Suits by Low-Wage Workers

Posted by Claire Zillman

Low-income workers who have fewer resources, more rigid jobs, and are more likely to be a single parent are often unfairly penalized at work, resulting in caregiver discrimination suits, according to a study by the Center for WorkLife Law at University of California Hastings College of Law.

In "Poor, Pregnant, and Fired: Caregiver Discrimination Against Low-Wage Workers," The National Law Journal, a sibling publication, analyzes trends in family responsibility discrimination suits brought by low-wage workers, most of which were resolved in the past five years. The report is based on a review of 50 cases, which were drawn from the more than 2,600 cases collected by the Center. 

Caregiver discrimination suits filed by these workers show that the work-family conflict is not just a professional women's problem, Stephanie Bornstein, the center's deputy director and the study's author, told the NLJ. "It's most acute and extreme for low-income families," she said. "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."

Caregiver discrimination suits have a higher success rate than overall employment discrimination suits. The average verdict awarded was $500,000, according to the center's analysis. 

Specific factors that contribute to low-wage workers filing such suits include jobs with too few hours, unpredictable or inflexible schedules, and ones that offer less access to paid sick days or unpaid family or medical leave, the report says. Limitations like these force workers to juggle multiple jobs or miss days of work, reports the NLJ. For instance, one of the cases cited in the report was that of a worker at an aerospace parts company who received a settlement of $761,279 after he was fired for missing work to care for his son, who has AIDS. Another case involved a delivery driver who was awarded $2.3 million when she was fired after announcing her pregnancy, the NLJ notes.

The report concludes that pregnancy discrimination is the most common type of employment discrimination suit brought by low-wage plaintiffs. It is far too common that low-wage women are fired on the spot after reporting to an employer that they are pregnant, Bornstein wrote in the study. 

Low-wage workers, compared to people who earn higher wages, often have less access to human resource departments and union representatives to which they can take their grievances, says Bornstein. "Low-wage workers don't have those intermediaries providing them with information about their rights," she says.

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