Angela Cyhaniuk sat numbly in a back room of the Victoria's Secret at Westfield Citrus Park mall as conversation swirled around her.
Just three months before, her bosses labeled her work as the store's manager "exemplary" and "flawless." Now the same people who had praised her were telling her she was fired.
She was accused of falsifying the payroll. But Cyhaniuk says she was convinced the real reason for her termination was the baby she was scheduled to deliver in October - and the leave that would keep her home during the Christmas rush.
"They had told me my pregnancy was going to be a problem," Cyhaniuk said. "Those were the words they used."
She left the store that day - June 6, 2004 - in a daze. She was 51/2 months pregnant and jobless. But she didn't want to give up without a fight.
Cyhaniuk contacted the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that week and joined the growing number of women alleging pregnancy discrimination. Between 1992 and 2003, the number of complaints nationwide rose nearly 40 percent, from 3,385 to 4,649, according to the EEOC.
Experts say there could be multiple explanations for the increase, from the growing number of mothers in the workplace to a lack of education among employers.
Many women, like Cyhaniuk, are simply more aware of the law and are willing to go to court if they believe they have been discriminated against.
"I felt like they murdered my career," she said. "I didn't want to let them get away with murder."
A dream job
Cyhaniuk, 35, is originally from the small English village of Formby, outside Liverpool. After working on cruise ships as a casino manager for seven years, she settled in Brandon with her husband, Evan, in 1998.
She took a job at Victoria's Secret Beauty, which sells skin care products and fragrances, because she liked the company.
"I loved their products," Cyhaniuk said. "I used them all the time. I really believed in them."
After starting in the Citrus Park store in 2001 as a sales clerk, she was promoted to store manager in 2003. During her tenure, she was credited with doubling the sales volume at the store.
Calls to Victoria's Secret corporate office seeking comment were not returned.
After her promotion, Cyhaniuk's career took off. In November 2003, she was selected one of the company's 12 top managers and invited to attend the Victoria's Secret fashion show.
The following May, Victoria's Secret officials had another surprise for Cyhaniuk: They wanted her to take over a store in Atlanta, a significant promotion.
But when she announced her pregnancy that same month, she says, her situation deteriorated quickly.
Cyhaniuk planned to work until her due date in late October. After the birth, she planned to take 12 weeks of unpaid leave, the amount allowed under the Family and Medical Leave Act. That meant she would miss the Christmas rush, when the store does as much as 50 percent of its annual business.
Cyhaniuk said she was told her absence could affect her promotion.
"They told me, 'There's just one problem - your due date,' " she said. "They said they needed a manager during Christmas."
Potentially losing her promotion was disappointing. But Cyhaniuk said she was stunned when representatives from the regional office showed up to fire her less than a month later. Her most recent job evaluation in March showed she exceeded expectations in all areas.
"I thought they were crazy," she said. "I just couldn't believe this was happening to me."
No easy explanation
Women have made a lot of progress since the Pregnancy Discrimination Act was passed in 1978, said Jocelyn Frye, general counsel for the National Partnership for Women & Families.
Under the law, employers with more than 15 workers must treat pregnant women in the same manner as other employees. In other words, if medical leave is granted to others, it must also be given to pregnant women, Frye said.
Despite efforts by the partnership and other advocacy groups, discrimination complaints are still all too common, she said.
"The reality is, even though we have made a lot of progress, there are still a lot of stereotypes out there about pregnancy," Frye said.
These cases are costing companies big money. In fiscal year 2003, the EEOC and state and local agencies collected $12.4-million from charges of pregnancy discrimination.
This year, Verizon Communications agreed to pay $48.9-million to more than 12,000 current and former female employees to settle a 2002 class action lawsuit alleging pregnancy discrimination by Verizon predecessor NYNEX and Bell Atlantic.
Manuel Zurita, director of the EEOC's Tampa field office, blames a lack of education among employers for the continued increase in complaints.
"I don't think anyone wants to violate the law," Zurita said. "It's just that they don't know what the law says."
But Christopher Shulman, a visiting professor at Stetson University College of Law, said the increase also could be a legal trend. Trial lawyers might encourage women to sue because they view pregnancy discrimination lawsuits as easy cases, he said.
"The plaintiffs are sympathetic," Shulman said. "Everyone on the jury had a mom who was pregnant at some time in her life."
Back to normal
After more than a year and a half of litigation, Cyhaniuk's case was resolved through mediation. It officially closed in November.
She is not allowed to disclose the amount of money she received or her discussions with Victoria's Secret. But she said she's pleased with the outcome.
"I finally feel like I can get on with my life now and give back to my family," Cyhaniuk said. "But I still get really angry when I think about what they did to me."
Her son, Austin, is 2 now. Cyhaniuk is selling real estate, which she said is lucrative but less fulfilling than her previous job. Her goal now is to make other women aware of their rights, she said.
"They can't just accept it," Cyhaniuk said. "If they truly feel they are being discriminated against because of their pregnancy, they have to fight it."
Carrie Weimar can be reached at (813) 226-3416 or email@example.com.