Smith College Faces Allegations Of Pregnancy Discrimination

Photo Courtesy of Matthew Healey via | Lisa Newman filed a complaint of pregnancy discrimination with the US Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights against Smith College |

Photo Courtesy of Matthew Healey via | Lisa Newman filed a complaint of pregnancy discrimination with the US Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights against Smith College

Northampton City Council unanimously voted in favor of a city council resolution supporting the Massachusetts Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (MPWFA) on Nov 3, making it the first municipality in the state to do so. The MPWFA is a bill currently in the State House’s Means and Ways Committee, and aims to provide reasonable and temporary accommodations to pregnant employees at the workplace. The city council resolution in favor of this bill was sponsored by city councilors Alisa Klein and Gina-Louise Sciarra, and states its belief that the passing of this bill would be beneficial for the “economic health and development of the city of Northampton.”

This resolution comes shortly after allegations have been made against Smith College about discriminating against pregnant employees. Former Smith employee Lisa Newman, who resigned in 2012, filed a Title IX complaint with the US Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) in May.

According to Newman’s testimony at the PWFA state hearing in July 2015, she faced discrimination and retaliation from Smith and her supervisor for the six years she was employed throughout the course of multiple pregnancies and miscarriages. She went on to say, “After miscarrying my second pregnancy, I needed to take medical leave for two weeks for surgery. I went to speak with my supervisor in her office, and upon learning of my medical leave, she stood up and verbally abused me, demanding to know how many children I was planning to have because my pregnancies were a burden and a hardship to her projects. How could I ask for accommodations after an incident like that?”

Newman also stated in her testimony that when she was five minutes late to a meeting due to pregnancy-related reasons, her supervisor was “furious” and demanded she sit in front of a clock at every future meeting to be more aware of the time. Upon contacting Human Resources at Smith, Newman explained that the response she received indicated that she should consider leaving her position and that no action would be taken against her supervisor. In fear of receiving a similar response from her supervisor, and with lack of legal backing, Newman feared losing her job.

“PWFA would offer support for other pregnant workers in my position; with guaranteed rights and accommodations, pregnant workers will know their jobs are secure, even in a hostile and discriminatory work environment like the one I faced,” Newman said.

She stated that this bill will help ensure that mothers do not need to choose between their health and their jobs, and that it would allow for the possibility of accommodations like flexible work schedules to allow doctors’ appointments, water bottles at workstations, more frequent bathroom breaks and stools to sit on to avoid physical strain.

“[My] complaint describes in over 150 pages, of very detailed and meticulous documentation, the alleged pregnancy discrimination and retaliation and denial of reasonable pregnancy accommodations that occurred to me for over six years,” Newman said at the city council meeting. “Smith college needs to investigate…We need to hold Smith accountable for their actions,” she said.

In the Summer 2016 issue of Smith Alumnae Quarterly,  President Kathleen McCartney wrote, “a year ago, on Mother’s Day, I issued a call to action on parental leave, via an op-ed in the Boston Globe…I argued that the United States should join the vast majority of countries with developed economies legislating more generous policies for employed parents expecting children… The op-ed was not only a rallying cry but also a moment to ensure Smith’s own house was in order. Writing about our society’s outdated conceptions of motherhood and caregiving spurred me to scrutinize—and ultimately expand—Smith’s own parental leave policy. I wanted to ensure that our benefits better reflected our values.”

Her letter went on to announce Smith’s new policy, which went into effect on July 1, that extended paid parental leave from eight to 12 weeks for primary caregivers and from one to four weeks for non-primary caregivers.

In response to Newman’s allegations, and her statement that upon her permission, a Boston Globe reporter shared her complaint document with the college. Smith’s Associate Vice President for College Relations Sam Masinter told The Sophian in an email, “The Globe did share with us a letter on Oct. 20 in which Ms. Newman outlined allegations against Smith. Our receipt of that letter does not constitute a formal complaint or lawsuit, and the allegations in it were addressed/investigated by the college at the time they were brought forward.”

However according to Newman, she attempted to contact HR and raise complaints, but to no avail. “I tried every avenue I could think of, every administrator I could think of going to at Smith, and what I encountered was further victimizing me, retaliation and nowhere to go to.” The OCR is currently processing the complaint and will refer it to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

According to Masinter, Smith has not received any notice that the OCR has opened a complaint against the college or that it is pursuing an enforcement action, and that there is “no indication that Newman’s allegations have resulted in any complaints or lawsuits being filed against Smith College.” He added, “Smith takes matters of discrimination and employee rights seriously, and carries out thorough investigations into any report of discrimination.”

The MPWFA was proposed by State Representative Ellen Story in July 2015. Currently in the House Means and Ways Committee, the bill calls for pregnant women to be able to ask for basic and reasonable accommodations while they are pregnant, unless the employer can confirm hardship on them. This includes additional bathroom breaks, water bottles at work stations, a stool to sit on and temporary shifts in responsibilities. Klein told The Sophian, “This [resolution] gives more heft [in favor of the bill] at the state level.”

“Most businesses already provide accommodations for pregnant workers, but I want to be sure that all businesses do, and that they can learn from the Northampton Pregnant Workers Fairness Resolution and the state legislation as well,” Klein said at the city council meeting. She went on to say that workers in low wage or physically demanding jobs are often more likely to be denied reasonable accommodations, and that workers who can least afford to lose their jobs are often at the highest risk of losing their jobs when pregnant. “That’s why calling for this act in our resolution is also addressing issues of class and race as well,” she said.

“Not only is this law beneficial for pregnant women and their families, it’s good for businesses. Reasonable accommodations are things such as giving someone who stands behind a counter for hours a stool to sit on…these accommodations are often low or no cost,” Klein explained. “Staff turnover is costly and time consuming.”

Liz Friedman, program director of MotherWoman, a Hadley-based non-profit that advocates for policies that are good for mothers, mothers-to-be and families, is chair of the Pregnant Workers Fairness Coalition across the state. The coalition consists of 25 organizations regionally as well as statewide, in support of the MPWFA.

“While when I started this I thought I would find very, very few cases of this,” Friedman said at the council meeting. “I have been amazed at how many cases in Western Massachusetts I have found.” She explained that the act would be beneficial for both the pregnant women and their families, as well as businesses, and that the bill has received bipartisan support. “Working moms won’t have to choose between the job they need and the baby they love”.

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