Written by Edward Smith
(AP) — Represented by high-powered lawyers, two women filed a federal court lawsuit Monday accusing AT&T’s mobile phone subsidiary of firing them for pregnancy-related absences in violation of federal anti-discrimination laws.
The women allege that AT&T Mobility’s attendance policy, which assigns point-based demerits for late arrivals, early departures and absences, discriminates against pregnant women. According to the class-action lawsuit, both women were fired after accruing points for missing work because of pregnancy-related medical care, and, in one plaintiff’s case, her infant son’s emergency medical needs as well.
The plaintiffs, Katia Hills and Cynthia Allen, filed their claim on behalf of all female non-managerial employees in AT&T Mobility’s retail stores nationwide, and seek redress for all of these employees whose rights have allegedly been violated.
AT&T spokesman Marty Richter said the company was reviewing the complaint, adding, “We do not tolerate discrimination of any kind, including for an employee’s gender or pregnancy.”
The attorneys handling the lawsuit — from the American Civil Liberties Union and the law firm Cohen Milstein — said it could have national implications for the legal boundaries of attendance policies like the one used by AT&T Mobility.
Known as “no-fault” policies, they have become popular among some large employers as a way to decide which of their lower-echelon workers has an attendance problem. Under the policies, employees are assessed demerits for various unauthorized attendance lapses, regardless of the reason for the infraction, and those who exceed certain numbers of demerits face discipline.
“They treat employees like cogs, but employees aren’t cogs” said attorney Gillian Thomas of the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project. “They’re human. They get pregnant, they get sick, they have families that need to be taken care of.”
According to the lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Indiana, Hills worked at an AT&T Mobility store in Elkhart, Indiana, from April 2014 until July 2015. She became pregnant in October 2014, and ensuing nausea and other symptoms sometimes caused her to be late or miss work.
As alleged in the lawsuit, Hills had accrued several demerits by the time she started maternity leave, and experienced workplace hostility related to her pregnancy. She gave birth to a son in June 2015, returned from maternity leave in July, and two days later was fired because of demerits incurred for two pre-leave, pregnancy-related absences, the lawsuit contends.
“When I decided to bring a child into this world, the company asked me to choose between my job and having a safe pregnancy,” said Hills. “The attendance policies are too rigid for women whose bodies are undergoing so many changes.”
Allen worked at AT&T Mobility stores in New York starting in December 2012 before transferring to a Las Vegas store in April 2017. According to the lawsuit, when pregnancy-related illnesses required Allen to take time off before her son’s birth in December 2016, she submitted documentation from her health providers and was not told of any demerits. But when she returned from maternity leave in February 2017, the lawsuit says, Allen was told she’d been put on “final notice” due to the pre-birth absences, and she was fired the next month after missing two days to take her son for emergency medical care.
“I was shocked and a little sacred,” said Allen, a single mother. “I was worrying about how I’m going to pay the rent and take care of my son and be able to find another job.”
The lawsuit says AT&T Mobility’s attendance policy exempts several types of absences — including jury duty and short-term disability — but does not mention pregnancy. The suit contends that the policy violates both the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, which says companies cannot treat pregnant and non-pregnant employees differently in extending employment benefits, and the Family and Medical Leave Act, which grants up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for eligible employees to care for their own serious medical condition or that of an immediate family member.
“AT&T Mobility is essentially punishing women for being pregnant,” said Cohen Milstein attorney Kalpana Kotagal. “Employers of course have every right to discipline employees who are habitually late or absent, but the law recognizes that pregnancy … can’t and shouldn’t be penalized in the same way.”
The lawsuit seeks the nationwide revision of AT&T Mobility’s attendance policies, compensation for the plaintiffs’ loss of income, and unspecified compensatory and punitive damages.