More than 100 women are contacting an employment law firm each month with queries about pregnancy related discrimination in the workplace, the firm’s principal has said.
Seán Ormonde, of Ormonde Solicitors, a Waterford-based firm specialising in employment law, said women being fired or made redundant due to pregnancy “is more common than you think”.
He made the comments on Wednesday when hosting a webinar on pregnancy-related discrimination.
Many women bring claims over pregnancy-related discrimination on principle, rather than for the money, he said. Their view is that pregnancy, although a “happy and joyous” time, is hard enough without experiencing unfair treatment along the way.
Most claims are resolved without going to hearing before the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC), with many settling under the mediation service offered by the WRC, he said. His firm’s experience was that some 70 per cent of cases settle.
Pregnancy related discrimination is less favourable treatment based on pregnancy, including a refusal to hire; being fired or made redundant because of pregnancy; not being promoted or not given bonuses or training opportunities, he outlined. A common example involved a woman returning from maternity leave to a different or lesser job, or being made subject to an unfavourable attitude or comments.
Outlining the law, Mr Ormonde said a strict six-month time limit applies to claims alleging discrimination under the employment equality legislation.
That limit begins from the date of the act of discrimination and is “quite short”. If the alleged discrimination happened before the woman went on maternity leave, she could return to work afterwards only to find her claim was statute barred, he said.
There are nine grounds for discrimination, including on grounds of gender and disability, and a claim must fall under at least one of these, he said.
Claims alleging discrimination in pregnancy are generally brought under gender or family status discrimination, he noted. Discrimination does not have to be laid at the door of an employer, it can be anyone in the workplace.
The WRC does not make significant awards and it is “very difficult” to get a pregnancy discrimination claim over the line at a hearing, he cautioned.
Some cases did end in substantial awards, he noted. A client in a managerial position secured an award of more than €80,000 over her treatment by her employer, for whom she had worked more than 20 years, when she sought to take full maternal leave on her fourth pregnancy, he said.
She had returned to work quickly after her earlier pregnancies and when she sought to take the full leave, her employer’s attitude changed and he became “quite antagonistic”.
The woman returned to work after her fourth pregnancy not as soon as her employer wanted but sooner than she had hoped, he said. The firm was instructed that her employer treated her “quite appallingly” and gave her menial tasks below her managerial status.
After correspondence from the firm failed to resolve the issues, the matter ended up before the WRC which found in her favour and awarded her a substantial sum, he said. The employer lost an appeal against the WRC decision to the Labour Court which increased her award to more than €80,000.
For that woman, it was not about the money but the principle, he said. Her view was she had given loyal service to the employer for more than 20 years “and this was how she was treated”.
Another client who had a good work record as a healthcare assistant for more than a year found, after she told her employer, a national agency, of her pregnancy, her hours began “to dry up”, he said.
While being told there were not enough hours due to cutbacks and other factors, she noted many of her colleagues were getting hours. She also believed she was being unfairly criticised and was effectively being “pushed out”. She ultimately resigned and took a claim to the WRC which was “fought tooth and nail” but ended in success and a substantial award.
His advice to women considering claims was to get legal advice and take “really good” notes concerning what was happening to them as many instance of discrimination happen “under the radar”.