PHILADELPHIA — By now, researcher Cynthia Calvert says, most employers know enough about the law and gender discrimination to at least avoid the appearance of bias against women.
But, she said, the same cautionary discretion just doesn't seem to apply to mothers, or pregnant mothers-to-be.
"People don't understand that you can't discriminate against mothers," said Calvert, who, as senior adviser at the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California, has testified on the topic before Congress and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
They don't seem to be too shy about expressing their feelings that mothers won't be able to handle their work responsibilities, Calvert said.
"Maternal discrimination," she said, "is the front line of gender discrimination today."
Cherie Santai, 40, of Perkasie, Pa., considers herself a casualty on that front line.
Santai started out in 1994 as a part-time cashier at Fred Beans Ford's Cadillac dealership in Doylestown, Pa. By December 2001, she had risen through the ranks to become service manager at Fred Beans Mitsubishi and, later, at Fred Beans Hyundai.
In October 2008, pregnant with her third child, Santai was terminated.
When she told Fred Beans she was pregnant, "he got very upset," Santai said, describing the reaction of her boss, owner of a string of regional dealerships. "He didn't expect me to have a third child.
"I had always looked up to him. He was always a father figure, a mentor," she said. "Then he was very cold. He kept asking me what I planned on doing. He didn't think I would be able to handle it with three children."
Santai wound up contacting a lawyer, Craig Thor Kimmel of Kimmel & Silverman PC in Ambler, Pa. In May 2010, she sued Fred Beans and the Beans organization in federal court in Philadelphia.
In September, she won a $150,000 judgment from her former employer.
Fred Beans couldn't be reached for comment, but in depositions he said Santai's termination had nothing to do with pregnancy or performance. Her job was eliminated, and she was one among many laid off in 2008.
"This is about economics," he said. "This is about … surviving."
In October 2008, car dealerships were reeling from the effects of the credit collapse that had ushered in the recession in December 2007.
As their investments plummeted, shoppers delayed car purchases, and General Motors and Chrysler, teetering on insolvency, turned to Congress for emergency aid.
In depositions, Santai talks of keeping Beans' business alive.
Santai said her job wasn't eliminated; she trained the man who replaced her.
WorkLife Law adviser Calvert said Santai's story has many familiar elements.
There's the outright conjecture, she said, over the woman's ability to perform when employment laws require pregnancy to be treated as any other medical disability.
For example, if a man returning from a heart attack gets an accommodation, a pregnant woman with complications is entitled to the same.
Interestingly, Calvert said, the third pregnancy tends to be a tipping point for employers and discrimination. "When the third child comes along," she said, the pressure "goes into hyperdrive."
It also appears that when male managers "really invest in a woman's career," as Beans did in Santai's rise within his organization, "they feel personally betrayed by a pregnancy."
Calvert said the economy has also had an effect.
"When the economy soured, we were hearing anecdotally that people were experiencing more discrimination. Supervisors could use the economy as a way to get rid of people."
Then, as downsized companies reshuffled, the few managers that remained weren't as familiar with the capabilities of their new reports. When it came to layoffs, "they made the assumption that the deadwood was the mothers," Calvert said.
Yet "people were so afraid they were going to lose their jobs that they were afraid to complain," she said.
Indeed, EEOC pregnancy-discrimination complaints, which had risen steadily from 3,977 in 1997 to a peak of 6,285 in 2008, dropped off nationally to 6,119 in 2010.
"Nearly 30 years after the pregnancy-discrimination act was passed, we would have expected it to be a nonissue," said EEOC spokeswoman Christine Nazar.
"The bottom line," she said, "is that women should never be forced to choose between motherhood and their livelihood."