Family Responsibilities Discrimination Laws Being Raised by States

States are seeking to protect workers from discrimination for their family duties.
by | May 11, 2012

Happy Mother’s Day! That is, unless you’re a working mother. Then you might be stressed, among the nearly 90 percent of Americans who are dissatisfied with the balance of their work and family life.

It’s not hard to see why: the odds that you have a child with chronic health problems have more than doubled in recent years. It’s possible that you’re also among the nearly 45 million Americans who provide unpaid caregiving to a loved one, a spouse or a parent perhaps.

And maybe you’ve felt a little extra pressure at work (or even more stress because of a lack of understanding from your employer) as a result of those family responsibilities. According to testimony from Equal Employment Opportunity Commission legal counsel Peggy Mastrioianni in a hearing on unlawful discrimination against pregnant workers and workers with caregiving responsibilities this February, more than 700 complaints have been filed in the last five years.

Well, some relief might be on its way: according to the University of California-Hasting’s Center for Work Life Law, 10 states (see map below) have anti-Family Responsibilities Discrimination (FRD) legislation pending. Three states (Alaska, Connecticut and New Jersey) plus the District of Columbia have already passed FRD protections, ensuring workers won’t be discriminated against for the various family responsibilities that modern families shoulder.

FRD advocates say it’s the beginning of a wider recognition that trends in family life and the workplace are at an impasse. The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee held a hearing this week to discuss ideas for helping middle-class families balance work and life. Proposals discussed included paid family leave, a more rigid 40-hour work week and more affordable childcare.

“These are problems that we as a society must address,” said Senate HELP Chairman Tom Harkin. D-Iowa. “We need to encourage all employers to adopt family-friendly policies."

Those are solutions that warrant further consideration, Judith Lichtman, senior adviser at the National Partnership for Women and Families during her testimony, and states must also evaluate their own policies. A recent review of state laws by the partnership concluded “too few states have adopted policies that help working families meet their responsibilities,” she said.

The pending bills in statehouses nationwide tackle the other side of the equation: protecting workers from facing repercussions at work for those responsibilities, Joan Williams, founder and director of the Center for Work Life Law, told Governing.

“Employers continue to define the ideal worker as someone who has somebody else taking care of family caregiving,” Williams said. “That’s not real life in the United States today.”

FRD could take a variety of forms: asking about a job candidate’s family life during the interview process or passing an employee over for a promotion because of responsibilities at home, for example. A Cornell University study found that (in an experiment in which employers were given identical resumes, except one candidate was a mother) the mother would be hired only 47 percent of the time, compared to 84 percent for the non-mother. The mother would also receive an $11,000 lower salary offer.

It should be noted that men, too, are vulnerable to such discrimination, Williams said, and in some ways, they have less legal support. A federal law against pregnancy discrimination exists, for example, while fathers have no obvious parallel protections.

Anti-FRD laws aim to address this mismatch between family life and employer expectations. Connecticut’s law, for example, prohibits employers from asking employees about their family responsibilities. Alaska forbids discrimination based on parenthood, and New Jersey extends FRD protections to state employees only.

Combined with the proactive policies floated during the HELP hearing, advocates hope governments will continue to recognize that mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, must be allowed to balance their work and family lives. After all, they say, less stressed workers might also be more productive. With more states recognizing the need for anti-FRD statutes, the future seems more promising, said Sarah Crawford, director of workplace fairness programs at the National Partnership for Women and Families, in an interview.

"We're seeing the states being the innovators on this issue," she said. "That's where we're going to see these policies tested out and proven successful."

The map below is based on information from the Center for Work Life Law. Zoom out for Alaska and Hawaii.

 
Status
 
Has FRD law
 
FRD bill pending in legislature
 
No FRD law

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