Editor’s Note: This sponsored column is written by Mathew B. Tully of Tully Rinckey PLLC, an Arlington firm that specializes in federal employment and labor law, security clearance proceedings, and military law.
Q. Is my supervisor at a federal agency allowed to subject me to harsh treatment because I got pregnant?
A. A pregnancy undoubtedly will bring change to a woman’s life and where she works. Some changes are more welcome than others, and when a pregnant federal employee encounters resistance or opposition to such change in the office, she needs to remember that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act protects her against sex and pregnancy discrimination.
Title VII prohibits employers – including federal agencies – from refusing to hire people, discharging them and changing the compensation, terms, conditions, and privileges of their employment because of their sex, among other characteristics. Covered under this prohibition against sex discrimination are pregnancy, childbirth and related medical conditions. The law states that “women affected by pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions shall be treated the same for all employment-related purposes… as other persons not so affected but similar in their ability or inability to work.”
If a supervisor is giving you a hard time because you are pregnant, the first question is whether he or she is harassing you because of your sex/pregnancy and creating a hostile work environment for you. Harsh comments about an employee’s pregnancy could have this effect, “[e]ven if [the] harassing conduct produces no tangible effects,” the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) said in Priscilla Niedzwiedz v. Department of Homeland Security (2010).
This case involved a Border Patrol agent whose supervisor had told her, “I understand you became pregnant during your probationary period. So while your classmates were out there working the field, you were working inside, pregnant. They were working out there, earning their reputation while you were pregnant and your job was handed to you.” A day later the supervisor warned the agent that she needed to maintain adequate fitness after having children. The supervisor threatened to focus harsh treatment on the agent and another female agent until they were physically competent because they were women.
These comments, among others, prompted the agent to file an Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) complaint, which the agency dismissed. On appeal however, the EEOC reversed the agency’s decision and remanded the case for an investigation and possible EEOC hearing. It noted that the supervisor’s remarks, despite being made over only two days, were “sufficiently severe to state a claim of discriminatory harassment.” The remarks were “explicitly directed at” the two female agents and “indicated that the negative treatment would be ongoing as the Supervisory Border Patrol Agent [kept focusing on] them because they were women.
Excessive questioning about pregnancy-related conditions and limitations on sick leave could also create a hostile work environment. The EEOC case, Mirtha Ford v. U.S. Postal Service, involved a pregnant letter carrier whose supervisor constantly questioned her frequent bathroom use, slow walking speed and repeated trips to the doctor. The supervisor also reduced the carrier’s hours and placed her on sick leave restriction under which all sick leave requests had to be supported by medical justification.
The supervisor believed the carrier was abusing her sick leave and claimed her inquiries were prompted by the fact that the carrier continuously made claims about pregnancy-related health problems. On appeal, the EEOC said several questions remained unresolved. For instance, it wanted to know how the supervisor could claim the carrier was abusing sick leave when she provided medical documentation for all pregnancy- and non-pregnancy-related absences. Consequently, the EEOC reversed the agency’s decision and remanded the case for an investigation and possible hearing.
Pregnant federal employees who believe they have been subjected to sex or pregnancy discrimination and/or harassment should immediately contact a competent federal employment law attorney, who can help them prepare an EEO complaint and represent them before the EEOC.
Mathew B. Tully is the founding partner of Tully Rinckey PLLC. Located in Arlington, Va. and Washington, D.C., Tully Rinckey PLLC’s attorneys practice criminal defense, matrimonial and family law, federal employment law, and military law. To speak with an attorney, call 703-525-4700 or to learn more visit 1888law4life.com.
The views and opinions expressed in the column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.