Fired While Pregnant

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

An email from an African American mother of three:

I was never was a true fighter for justice until I became a victim of plunder. This all started back in 2008, during the housing collapse and the start of the recession. I worked as a leasing agent for a luxury property management company located in Laurel, MD. I was the top selling agent! I was so good and so appreciated by my employer and received high praise in our meetings. I made tons of money in commission. Back then I wasn’t yet married, nor did I have children. I was working long hours and at the beck and call of my company.

Where it all went awry was a year or so into working with my company. I was getting serious about a boyfriend, we moved in together, and I ended up getting pregnant.

I was scared because this was my first pregnancy. What made it scarier was that I found out I was having twins! I was told by a physician that I would be considered high risk and would therefore need to go to a few more doctors’ visits than normal.

With that information I thought it best to tell my employer. At our daily morning meeting (which comprised of leadership and my colleagues), I decided to make my announcement that I was having twins. After uttering the words, I saw my boss look down and look back at me with a mean gaze. I knew right then that I loss my value for my company. Although I did nothing wrong, I could see that I made a horrible mistake telling my boss that I was pregnant.

Two weeks later I was fired and denied unemployment. My husband, who at the time was my boyfriend, supported me financially but had a huge burden on his shoulders. He is a young African American male with only a GED who worked on a finicky government contract, which means that he was considered At-Will.

There was nothing left to do but find a lawyer who would fight for me to appeal unemployment. After a hearing, I won my unemployment due to the fact that I was not fired for misconduct. I then decided to file an EEOC claim for pregnancy/sex discrimination, which I did. Then I began to look for a lawyer to sue my employer.

After years of begging firms to take my case, finally the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Justice took it for pro-bono with the collaboration of a lawyer named Richard Saltzman, from the firm Heller, Huron, Chertkof, Lerner, Simon, and Salzman. After years of lost wages, no health benefits, the loss of my apartment, having to move in with family and depend on a wonderful man who nearly lost his mind due to stress, I won my case against my former employer. [CB note: Here’s a PDF of the case provided by our reader.]

I recognized that I was set back years of economic and career growth due to my former employer’s discrimination. All I wanted to do was have a family and a career and be a strong member of my community. I see that without the support of my husband, my family, and my strong belief in what is right and wrong, I was able to fight for my rights.

However, there are tons of women out there who have had a similar experience but who don’t fight. The EEOC alone has had a spike in growth of the number of pregnancy/sex discrimination claims during the recession made by women.

Indeed, as Darlene Cunha pointed out for us last year, “While few women file lawsuits, there are more discrimination claims submitted now than there used to be.” Specifically:

In 2006, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) received nearly 5,000 complaints of pregnancy-based discrimination—a 30 percent increase from the previous decade. In 2010, there were more than 6,000 complaints filed.

The Pregnancy Discrimination Act has been in place since 1978, branching out from Title VII, which states employers cannot discriminate due to gender. In 1986, those laws were upheld in Meritor Savings Bank vs. Vinson, which found that the civil rights law applied to pregnancy-based discrimination.

Under the law, companies of 15 or more employees are required to treat pregnancy equal to all other short-term disabilities in terms of medical coverage and leave. Pregnant employees must be allowed to work, as long as they can perform their jobs. Employers must hold the employee’s position for her for as long as they would for any other employee on any type of disability leave. This was emphasized in 1993 under FMLA, which allows employees up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for childbirth, family illness, or emergencies—provided the business has more than 50 employees, and the worker has been there full-time for more than a year, or racked up at least 1,250 hours.

However, a recent ruling allowed for employers to let employees go while on maternity leave if the business undergoes a structural shift and eliminates the position during downsizing. And if an employer is able to prove that letting the pregnant employee go had to do with those reasons, it is likely the woman is out of luck.

If you have anything to share on the subject, email