THE BLOG

Why 2015 Was a Banner Year for Working Parents

This year showed profound changes in the laws that impact those with caregiving responsibilities - from legal judgements to changing social attitudes. It was a notable year for working parents.

Many of these changes are long overdue. Women continue to move into management positions while men are playing an ever-increasing role in caring for children.

Federal laws remain largely unchanged, but courts, corporations and states are taking the lead in reinterpreting the line between work and family life.

As we head into a presidential election year, we can expect to hear more about these issues at the federal level as well.

Here are the five biggest developments from 2015:

1. The Young vs. UPS Reinterpreted the PDA

The biggest moment in family law came early in 2015 when the U.S. Supreme Court took its first major case on the federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act in a generation.

Peggy Young worked in package delivery for UPS. On the advice of her doctor, she asked for a light duty assignment when she became pregnant. UPS denied her request, even though the company offered light-duty positions to other workers. UPS argued that its policy to deny light-duty leave to workers except those injured on the job was not unlawful.

Without deciding this case, the Supreme Court agreed with Young that it could be illegal for a company to deny pregnant workers with light-duty leave when it provided it to other workers.

The Court sent the case back to the lower court for trial where the case settled.

This opinion made it clear that the Pregnancy Discrimination Act may, under certain circumstances, require a company provide accommodations to a woman with otherwise healthy pregnancy who requires modest changes to her workplace so that she can continue to work.

2. AutoZone Reached an Eye-Popping Verdict

The largest verdict in a single plaintiff employment case happened this year in a pregnancy discrimination case.

Rosario Juarez was demoted at an AutoZone after she became pregnant. After she complained of discrimination, AutoZone fired her.

The jury in Juarez vs. AutoZone was none-too happy with what it heard, issuing a $185 million-dollar verdict. The case settled before the court entered judgment, probably for some amount much less than the verdict.

But regardless of the final settlement figure, the verdict put a very large exclamation point on how angry a jury can become when presented with evidence that a company treated an employee badly simply because she was pregnant.

3. States Stood Up to Caregiver Discrimination

While Congress remains deadlocked by partisan politics on updating caregiver discrimination laws, state and local governments are filling in the gap.

Prompted and supported by organizations like A Better Balance, The Center for Worklife Law and First Shift, many passed aggressive protections for parents and caregivers.

Taking the lead in this effort in the District of Columbia City Council, which is considering a bill that would provide up 16 weeks of paid leave to new parents and others workers with health care needs. If the bill passes, D.C will have the most generous paid leave in the nation.

The leave would be funded by payments by employers into a trust fund.

By comparison, under federal law, new parents get up to 12 weeks of leave, but only at companies with 50 or more employees, and the leave is unpaid.

4. Fathers Made Their Voices Heard

Working fathers also got a turn in the spotlight this year. A number of studies showed that families are stronger when the father is able to participate in the care of newborns.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission joined this effort when it issued guidance stating that companies to comply with federal law must provide equal bonding leave for male and female employees.

That this issue is a real world problem was made evident by New York Times article, Attitudes shift on paid leave: Dads sue, too, which profiled lawsuits brought by new fathers against employers based on unlawful leave policies and practices.

Josh Levs, a reporter, provided the most high-profile example of this when he filed a charge against CNN, arguing that the company unlawfully discriminated against fathers because company policy provided new fathers much less leave than new mothers. His book, All In: How Our Work-First Culture Fails Dads, Families, and Businesses--And How We Can Fix It Together, came out earlier this year.

Another high-profile father, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, made headlines when he announced that he would take two months' leave to be with his first-born daughter Max.

While Facebook now offers generous leave for fathers, nothing shows that a company really means it like a high-profile CEO taking advantage of it.

5. Public Attitudes About Working Parents Shifted

New research on public attitudes about working parents shows a distinct change, with the vast majority of respondents favoring mothers working in many situations.

As reported in the New York Times:

Not only do as many as 92 percent of Americans now favor mothers working in many situations, but as many as 77 percent also support fathers not working when it is more ideal to stay home. The data uncover a sharply changing definition of fatherhood..... Past research had found Americans' views on working mothers to be more traditional and unbending. Pew Research Center found in 2007 that 41 percent of people thought it was bad for society when mothers worked, while 22 percent said it was good. The General Social Survey found in 2012 that nearly one-third of people thought working mothers could not establish as warm and secure a relationship with their children.

With public attitudes changing at a rapid rate, the national debate over working parents is changing from whether they should work to how we should help them.

Tom Spiggle is author of "You're Pregnant? You're Fired: Protecting Mothers, Fathers, and Other Caregivers in the Workplace." He is founder of the Spiggle Law Firm based in Arlington, Va., and Nashville, TN., where he focuses on workplace law helping clients facing pregnancy discrimination or other family-care issues, such as caring for a sick child or elderly parent. To learn more, visit: www.yourepregnantyourefired.com.