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Debra Ness's picture

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In January, President Obama made the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act the first bill he signed into law, reversing the effects of a devastating Supreme Court decision in the fair pay case, Ledbetter v. Goodyear. Just four months later, we’re faced with another deeply disappointing Supreme Court ruling that forces women to pay a high price today because their employers discriminated yesterday.

This week’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling in AT&T Corp. v. Hulteen dealt a serious and painful blow to working women and the families who rely on their retirement benefits. The Court sided against a group of women who sued their former employer, AT&T Corp., for excluding time spent on pregnancy leave from their retirement benefits. These women faced discrimination prior to enactment of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978, but the Court’s ruling allows this discrimination to penalize them and their families forever.

The Hulteen ruling affects a limited number of people – women who worked at companies offering retirement benefits, and took pregnancy leave before the Pregnancy Discrimination Act became law. It would be easy to ignore them – easy, but terribly wrong. We are all harmed when our highest court condones blatant discrimination, no matter when it occurred. This ruling sends a terrible message about whether discrimination will bring penalties and costs, and whether the courts will address the ongoing effects of prior discrimination.

In terms of practical impact, it couldn’t come at a worse time. In today’s grim economic climate, women and their families cannot afford to see their retirement benefits kept lower by discriminatory workplace policies that should have been remedied decades ago.

We need a Court that stands firm for equal rights, when we have anti-discrimination laws in place as well as when we don’t. Pregnancy discrimination claims are skyrocketing in the U.S. right now, 30 years after the Pregnancy Discrimination Act became law. In 2007, working women in the U.S. filed 65 percent more complaints of pregnancy discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) than they filed in 1992. The National Partnership for Women & Families reviewed a sampling of these claims and found that complaints filed by women of color and those working in industries dominated by female workers fueled much of this sharp increase. We also found that race and ethnicity appear to play a significant role in the rise of pregnancy discrimination complaints.

It’s truly sobering that, 30 years after our nation outlawed discrimination on the basis of pregnancy, so many women – and women in color in particular – are experiencing it in such a serious way that they file a complaint with the EEOC.

It may be even more sobering that, at this time when negative stereotypes about pregnant women clearly persist, we have a Supreme Court that doesn’t stand firm for equal rights and equal opportunity.

It’s a good reminder of what’s at stake with the Supreme Court nomination President Obama is about to make.


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