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The discrimination lawsuit you didn’t see coming

Research by the Center for WorkLife Law, a nonprofit research and advocacy group at the University of California Hastings College of the Law, finds 4,400 family responsibilities discrimination lawsuits filed in the last 10 years.
Research by the Center for WorkLife Law, a nonprofit research and advocacy group at the University of California Hastings College of the Law, finds 4,400 family responsibilities discrimination lawsuits filed in the last 10 years.

Employee lawsuits alleging “family responsibilities discrimination” are growing at a faster rate than any other kind of employment discrimination case, according to a new study.

What’s that about?

It’s about workers who believe they are subjected to unfair treatment in the workplace because of pregnancy, motherhood, fatherhood or being caregivers for family members who are sick or old or who have disabilities.

Research by the Center for WorkLife Law, a nonprofit research and advocacy group at the University of California Hastings College of the Law, found 4,400 such lawsuits filed in the last 10 years. They include:

▪ A ballooning number of cases alleging biased treatment because of elder care obligations.

▪ A rapid growth in cases alleging failure to provide legally mandated accommodation because of pregnancy – the most common family responsibilities complaint.

▪ A small but growing number of cases alleging failure to provide lactation accommodation.

▪ A jump in the number of cases filed by men who have spousal, elder or child care obligations.

As with all lawsuits, some are filed without merit and some detail egregious legal violations. Generally, discrimination cases of any kind are tough for employee plaintiffs to win. But the Caregivers in the Workplace report said that when family responsibilities cases made it to trial, employees won in 67 percent of the cases, and when settled without trial, employees prevailed in 52 percent.

Report author Cynthia Thomas Calvert said the $477 million in verdicts and settlements tallied from 2006 to 2015 “is likely a vast understatement of the real amount because it does not include confidential settlement agreements.” (Workers increasingly are asked to sign confidentiality agreements concerning arbitration or negotiated agreements.)

The report predicts continued increase in these lawsuits, given higher percentages of aging parents, greater numbers of family members with disabilities and more men assuming chief caregiver roles.

Resulting lawsuits “can harm businesses beyond the obvious costs of legal damages and litigation expenses,” the report said. They also can cause loss of good employees, damaged morale and productivity, and battered reputations.

The findings also produced tips for employers who want to avoid family responsibilities complaints. One of the most interesting was to be alert to “new supervisor syndrome” when workers’ complaints begin under a different or new boss who isn’t as flexible as the previous one.

Another flashpoint is “second-child syndrome,” when employees who sensed no discrimination after a first child feel discriminated against after the arrivals of subsequent children.

Companies need to look out for failures to promote, to give warranted raises or to assign more high-profile duties on the presumption of family duties rather than actual employee performance.

Diane Stafford is a columnist for The Kansas City Star. stafford@kcstar.com, 816-234-4359, @kcstarstafford, kansascity.com/workplace

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