Breeder Blues, Part 2

Chatterbox criticized the Clinton administration’s proposed anti-parent-discrimination bill before he had a chance to see an important bit of information. (See “Breeder Blues.”) This was what the Washington Post referred to as a list of “nearly a dozen examples of alleged workplace discrimination” that aides to Clinton and Sen. Chris Dodd, who plans to sponsor the bill, said “would have been remedied by their proposal.” The Post story contained a quote from White House domestic policy adviser Bruce Reed that appeared to hint that this case list was underwhelming. “We hope this kind of discrimination isn’t rampant,” Reed told the Post. “But there have been some troubling cases, and no form of discrimination is something that employers are going to readily admit. … Parents should not be discriminated against in the workplace, and we want to make sure they have legal protection against that.” For elaboration, Chatterbox phoned Reed, who denied that his enthusiasm for the Don’t Discriminate Against Mom and Dad bill was weak. “We can’t get a complete sense of” how many cases there are, he explained, “because nobody files discrimination claims when there’s no law on the books to support those claims.”

Fair enough. But we can only know what we know, right? When Reed faxed Chatterbox the case list, a few things immediately became apparent. One is that the Post probably didn’t see the list, because if it had it wouldn’t have said the number of cases identified by the bill’s proponents was “nearly a dozen.” It would have said the number was eight, which could more accurately be described as “a little more than half a dozen.” More important, simply reading the fact sheet without doing further research revealed that at least four of these eight cases argue against what Clinton and Dodd are proposing, not for it:

  • Chatterbox’s favorite is Coraggio v. Time Inc. (1995). According to the fact sheet, a director of ad sales administration at one of the Time Warner publications returned from maternity leave to discover her job responsibilities had been whittled down. Within a year, she was told her job was being eliminated and got three weeks’ notice. She sued in federal court. Apparently whatever was done to her wasn’t a violation of the Family and Medical Leave Act, which is supposed to protect workers from losing their jobs when they take unpaid maternity leave. What did the plaintiff tell the judge? Quoth the fact sheet: “She argued that her new boss, a lesbian, and the director for her bureau, a single woman without children, were hostile toward her as a married mother.” (The judge dismissed most of the claims, but there’s apparently some ambiguity about whether the judge gave credence to this particular argument.)

So: In order to remedy a possibly discriminatory act (a woman punished on the job for having a baby), it is necessary to commit an act of bigotry (i.e., to insinuate or claim that lesbians and single childless women–we should probably be grateful the latter aren’t referred to in the case description as “spinsters”–don’t care about children). Chatterbox doubts this is the only instance where asserting the “rights” of parents would entail a little gay-bashing.

  • In Nelms v. Overnight Transportation Company (1996) a female truck driver in Michigan was working long hours without advance notice, making it difficult for her to arrange child care. After she complained, her employer agreed to give her more notice. But then the employer tried to get her to take a dispatch on short notice, apparently in violation of the agreement. She refused, got fired, and sued in federal court. Chatterbox assumes the boss’s action couldn’t be construed as violating a contract (otherwise she would have gotten relief on those grounds). Instead, the driver introduced evidence that, the court noted, showed that the employer may have had a “discriminatory animus towards employees with families, or working parents.” But because gender (as opposed to anti-parent) discrimination couldn’t be proved, the court dismissed the case.

As presented in the fact sheet, this is a classic case of special pleading disguised as a violation of civil rights. Even assuming that the boss was a double-crossing jerk who hated kids, what is he (or she) really guilty of? Failing to cut some slack! The boss wasn’t assuming, unfairly, that a parent would refuse an inconvenient assignment; the boss was reacting to a parent who did refuse an inconvenient assignment.

  • In Donaldson, Morale, and Zaville v. American Banco Corp. (1996), three women sued the Colorado bank they worked for because, after they told their bosses they were pregnant, they received reduced hours, reduced pay, demotion, and termination. Because it’s already against the law to discriminate against pregnant women, their lawsuit survived a motion to dismiss in federal court.

So what’s this case doing on the list? Because “the President’s proposal would extend such protections to [hypothetical] employees of both sexes who face similar discrimination only after childbirth.” This is really lame.

  • Finally, there’s Cooper v. Drexel Chemical Co. (1996). A man was warned by his boss that he “better not take off work” when his child was born. He took the leave anyway, was fired, sued in federal court in Mississippi, and lost. This could not happen today, because the Family and Medical Leave Act makes such firings illegal. But Cooper got fired before the law took effect.

What is this case is doing on the list? The law to protect leave-taking dads has already been passed! Perhaps someone in the White House or in Dodd’s office told some hapless staffer, “Hey, if we’re going to say we’ve found a dozen examples, we’ll need at least eight. Just get me eight.”

–Timothy Noah