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High Court rules against working women

Published May 29, 2009 10:34 PM

On May 18, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a stunning blow to women workers, overturned lower courts’ decisions and ruled that AT&T, the seventh-largest corporation in the world, could exclude maternity leaves when calculating pension benefits.

In the case of AT&T Corporation v. Hulteen, seven of the nine justices ruled that since the plaintiffs took pregnancy leaves prior to the 1978 Pregnancy Discrimination Act, the corporation was lawfully permitted to decrease their retirement funds. They claimed the law was not retroactive.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the only woman on the court, and Justice Stephen Breyer said the court allowed AT&T to pay the plaintiffs “for the rest of their lives, lower pension benefits than colleagues who worked for AT&T no longer than they did.” (New York Times, May 19) They said the PDA should have ended such discrimination.

Noreen Hulteen, Linda Porter, Eleanor Collet and Elizabeth Snyder began their maternity leaves before 1976. Hulteen and Porter were ordered by AT&T executives to go home two months earlier than they’d planned, when their pregnancies became apparent.

Hulteen was hospitalized after childbirth for an unrelated medical problem and missed 240 days of work. The company paid her for only 30 days, its maximum for “personal” time off. They considered pregnancy leave “personal” time then and denied her disability leave. When Hulteen retired in 1994, AT&T excluded 210 days when determining her pension benefits.

The corporation also deducted uncredited “personal” days off for maternity leaves when it calculated Collet’s pension in 1998 and Snyder’s in 2000. AT&T claimed this was lawful, since the leaves were prior to the PDA’s passage.

In 1979 AT&T made pregnancy leaves equivalent to disability leaves, but did not make the policy retroactive prior to 1978.

The women’s movement had pushed hard for legal protection for pregnant workers and won the Pregnancy Discrimination Act in 1978. The law forbade pregnancy-based discrimination. It required that maternity leave be treated equally with other medical and disability leaves.

In 2001, the four women sued AT&T and asserted that the PDA outlawed paying them lower pensions by deducting their pregnancy leaves. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the plaintiffs, but AT&T then appealed to the Supreme Court.

The plaintiffs and the Communication Workers of America, which represents most of AT&T’s workers, had filed sex- and pregnancy-based discrimination charges with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

New ruling legalizes discrimination

AT&T has continued to discriminate for 31 years since the PDA was enacted. Thousands of women have faced discrimination twice, first when having to take unpaid maternity leave prior to 1979, and then when being denied full retirement pensions years later.

Women’s rights activists warn of the dangerous repercussions of this decision for women workers and their families. They say it can affect thousands of women who took pregnancy leaves years ago and now face retirement.

Marcia D. Greenberger, National Women’s Law Center co-president, stressed: “By authorizing AT&T to treat women differently today based on maternity leaves they took in the 1970s, the Court is allowing the perpetuation of pregnancy discrimination in damaging and unjustifiable ways. ... This ruling erects barriers to the equal treatment of women in the workplace and gives a green light to employers to continue penalizing female employees who have borne children.” (nwlc.org)

Debra L. Ness, president of the National Partnership for Women and Families, said: “The [Court] ... dealt a painful and serious blow to ... working women and their families who rely on their retirement benefits. Its ruling [in this case] forces women to pay a high price today because their employers discriminated yesterday.

“The decision couldn’t come at a worse time,” said Ness. “In the current economic climate, women and their families cannot afford to see their retirement benefits kept lower by discriminatory workplace policies that should have been remedied years ago.” (civilrights.org)

In this case, the Supreme Court has again revealed its pro-corporate bias and demonstrated that it is not a neutral body. It found yet one more way to deny women equal pay and benefits.

The ruling also reveals the court’s collusion with the corporations to help them maximize profits. How much of AT&T’s $12.9 billion in profits in 2008 and first-quarter profits of $3.13 billion this year, was made by denying thousands of women equal pension funds due to pregnancy discrimination? Over the decades, how much in profits did the corporation make by denying women paid maternity leaves that they earned?

The Communication Workers union said the court’s decision means the “end to the legal challenges brought by CWA and others.” The union said that thousands of AT&T employees will “end up with lower pensions and other retirement benefits than their colleagues who did not take pregnancy-related leave,” but had equal work records.

“It is also an unfortunate ‘win’ for AT&T, whose continued pursuit of this appeal shows us once again how little regard they have for their employees.” (cwa-comtech.org)

The court’s ruling could endanger even more women’s retirement benefits, a serious threat today given the economic crisis, and exacerbate the very real impoverishment of aging women workers. Women still face wage inequality, especially those from African-American, Latina, Asian, Arab and Native communities, and lower Social Security payments and pensions.

Despite prohibitive legislation, the workplace is still rife with pregnancy discrimination, which occurs frequently during and after pregnancy when women return to work. Claims to the EEOC objecting to this practice grew 65 percent from 1992 to 2007, filed mostly by women of color and those who work in industries where women predominate in the work force, according to the National Partnership for Women and Families. (infozine.com)

It is capitalism and the profit motive that underlie pregnancy-related and pension discrimination and other sexist, anti-worker practices. This should be exposed and opposed.