Allison Yrungaray had been at her public relations job for about a year when she became pregnant with her first child in 2004.
About six months into her pregnancy, a more senior position opened up and the software company's chief executive pressured her to decide if she wanted the job, she said.
Yrungaray, then 23 and working in Southern California, said she considered it but turned down the promotion because the timing was off. By her account, the CEO told her that if she couldn't dedicate herself to her current job, she would have to leave the company.
"I was surprised by that reaction," said Yrungaray, who now lives in Salt Lake City. "I thought he would say, 'OK, thanks. We'll look for someone else.' But it was 'OK, if you don't want that then we don't want you.' "
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She contacted her off-site human resources manager, who set up a meeting that Yrungaray said her colleagues made confrontational. A month before her due date, she quit her job to go freelance.
Despite the large number of working women and two long-standing federal laws aimed at protecting pregnant women from workplace discrimination, many still find themselves in similar crises as their pregnancies progress.
A growing number are taking their grievances to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which has seen pregnancy discrimination claims jump 45 percent since 1992. The EEOC received 4,901 complaints last year, up from 4,287 filed in 2001.
Last month, the EEOC charged business information provider Bloomberg with engaging in a pattern of demoting and reducing the pay of female employees after they announced their pregnancies or when they returned from maternity leave.
The lawsuit alleges some women were replaced by more junior male employees or excluded from management meetings and subjected to stereotypes about their ability to perform their jobs because of family responsibilities.
Lew Maltby, president of the National Workrights Institute in Princeton, N.J., said he can't account for the rise in pregnancy discrimination cases.
"Employers are getting better at avoiding racial discrimination; they're getting better at training people not to commit sexual harassment," Maltby said. "Why they would be getting worse on pregnancy discrimination is a mystery."
Some women struggle to be treated fairly when their bodies start to change, said Karen Minatelli, policy director for the D.C. Employment Justice Center, a nonprofit advocacy group in the Washington metro area.
"Once someone's showing, that's the time when we've had employers who tell their workers, 'You're going to have to quit because you're obviously not going to be able to work,' and this isn't work where there's heavy labor involved," she said.
Demographic factors would seem to compel companies to do all they can to avoid pregnancy discrimination: More women need to work outside the home than in generations past; more are advancing into higher positions; half of married mothers of infants are in the labor force and more women are getting college degrees than men. Women also are waiting longer, on average, to have children.
You would think women would push back against any discrimination, but that's not the case, Minatelli said.
"People are buying into this idea that having a family is really inconvenient," she said.
What To Do And How To Do It
Here are six tips that experts advise considering to prevent or deal with workplace resentment that crosses the legal line:
1. Know your rights. National and local laws apply even before you're pregnant. "Any inquiry into your gestational status -- present, past or future -- is illegal under federal law," said Jack Tuckner, partner at Tuckner, Sipser, Weinstock & Sipser in New York. Several organizations' Web sites can serve as resources, such as www.eeoc.gov; WorkplaceFairness.org; the National Association of Working Women's 9to5.org; and the National Employment Lawyers' nela.org. Some states also protect breast-feeding at work.
2. Announce your pregnancy in writing. When you're ready to tell your employer, Tuckner said, write a return-receipt letter or an e-mail that shows you when it was read. It can be a friendly inquiry about maternity leave planning, but it serves the broader purpose of putting the company on notice that any subsequent punitive action would expose it to a retaliation claim.
3. Monitor your treatment. If everything goes smoothly before you leave, make sure you resume your original status and get the same opportunities upon your return. "If you come back and you're still doing the same work and there are promotions available, you should be considered for that promotion just like anyone else, regardless of your leave of absence," said John Barry, partner at Proskauer Rose in New Jersey. If you worked out a part-time schedule and pay scale, vigilantly enforce appropriate limits on your time.
4. If you suspect you're being discriminated against, talk with a supervisor or human resources manager before firing off a threatening letter. Companies, especially those that are small, sometimes don't realize they're operating afoul of the law and might be willing to make amends, said Karen Minatelli, policy director for the D.C. Employment Justice Center. Exhaust every avenue of personal interaction before raising the stakes. Write down what's said, and ask colleagues who witnessed the interactions for support if it's needed. "It's helpful if people can submit statements," Minatelli said.
5. Don't quit your job. That will hurt your chances of getting legal redress if you need it, Tuckner said. Hang in there, especially if you have an unblemished record. If the employer wants to negotiate a separation, you may be able to leave with six to 12 months of pay, health care coverage and a positive reference letter you can use for the next job, he said.
6. Contact legal organizations or ask an attorney for a free consultation. "Plenty of us, including me, still give free consultations if we think something's there," Tuckner said.