NEW YORK, N.Y. - If you don't get a job because you're a woman, or you get fired because you're black, or you get transferred to the night shift because you're gay, there's a law for that. But if you're punished at work because you need time to take your child to the doctor or talk to your confused elderly mother, you might be out of luck.
In most places around the country, there's no specific safeguard against employment discrimination based on a worker's status as a caregiver. Connecticut and the District of Columbia are exceptions. Legislation that would change that is pending in New York City and California, but business interests have objected.
At a recent hearing on the New York City bill, Dena Adams testified that she lost her job at a non-profit organization when she was switched from a regular day shift to irregular night hours, couldn't get nighttime child care and didn't want to leave her 11-year-old daughter alone.
She offered to work weekends and holidays, then requested a consistent night schedule and finally asked if she could bring her 11-year-old daughter to work with her. She was turned down every time, she said, though other workers were given hours that allowed them to go to school.
"I said, 'Oh, no, no, no, something is not right here,'" she told a City Council committee. "That's when I realized, you know what, this is discrimination."
But there was no law against it, and Adams had to look for another job.
Proponents say various demographic trends have fed the problem and created the need for new laws: more single-parent households, more households with both parents working and more elderly people who need family care.
"In previous generations, there was this concept of the stay-at-home parent — a mother — who would be available to deal with all the domestic responsibilities," said Phoebe Taubman, senior staff attorney at A Better Balance, a legal organization that helps workers meet the demands of work and family. "Now both parents are working, work hours are longer than ever, schedules are unpredictable, overtime is frequent and there's just no way to be everywhere and do everything for everybody."
The Center for WorkLifeLaw at the University of California's Hastings College of the Law said in 2012 that only a few states and a few dozen localities have laws that go beyond the federal Family Medical Leave Act. That law is limited to serious health conditions, employers with 50 or more workers and employees with a year on the job.
Connecticut and the District of Columbia protect all workers with "caregiver responsibilities," while Alaska, New Jersey and Oregon protect workers with child care but not elder care responsibilities, the centre said. It found 67 local ordinances, most of which covered only child care.
A bill in the California Legislature would cover those who provide "medical or supervisory care" to children, spouses or parents, but the state Chamber of Commerce claims it's too vague and "a job killer" and has successfully opposed it for several years.
In a letter to the Legislature last year, the chamber said the bill would "dramatically increase the amount of frivolous litigation." It said medical care could be interpreted as "administering over the counter medication once a day." And it said there are enough existing protections.
Among the California bill's proponents is Derek Tisinger, who claims he was denied a promotion in the Bakersfield Fire Department because he had sole custody of three children. The department had earlier made it difficult for him to take time off for child care, he said, "although they bent over backward to make sure the guys on the softball team could play softball."
He lost a lawsuit on appeal — the city denies he was passed over because of child care issues — and now campaigns for a new law.
The New York City bill would add "caregiver status" to race, religion, disability and other forbidden reasons for employers to discriminate. It defines a caregiver as someone who provides ongoing care to children or to others "in a dependent relationship" who suffer from a disability.
It calls on employers to make "reasonable accommodation" to caregivers.
"It could be as simple as the need to take a few phone calls during the day," said City Councilwoman Deborah Rose, whose committee is considering the bill.
"It doesn't say people with caregiving responsibilities get to come in late or leave early," said Robin Devaux, managing director of the WorkLifeLaw centre. "What it says is if you let Joe leave early for his golf game, then you also need to let Mary leave early to care for her father. It's simply asking for equal treatment."
At the New York City hearing, a slew of examples was alleged, including a mother who was fired when she returned from her second maternity leave; she claimed she was told she was incapable of doing the work because she had "multiple small children."
Backers say the city's previous administration opposed the bill as bad for job growth and they're hoping for more support from Mayor Bill de Blasio. Gale Brewer, who was the main backer of the bill in the City Council and is now Manhattan borough president, said she plans to reintroduce it.
"Years ago, you know, before everything was so corporate, there was maybe more human kindness between an employer and the workers," she said. "A lot of our growth is in corporate retail, chain stores, and they don't have that personal touch. So we have to mandate it legislatively."