Tuning Up The Law Against Discrimination

Some may find it hard to believe, but right now, if an employer is so inclined, there’s a good chance that a woman could lose her job in New Jersey for getting pregnant. Likewise, it’s not clear under existing law whether employers are required to make accommodations in the workplace for employees who become pregnant.

The State Division on Civil Rights believes existing New Jersey law needs a definitive requirement that employers make it easier for pregnant women to work at store check out counters by, for example, allowing them to sit on stools. I agree.

Recently, a narrow 4-3 majority of the New Jersey Supreme Court held that current New Jersey law supports a casino’s right to terminate a woman for failing to return from a maternity leave in a timely manner. I believe that opinion shows the need for legislative action.

Fortunately, there’s a movement underway in the Legislature to add “familial status,” a term meant to protect women and their unique child-bearing responsibilities, to the list of protections in New Jersey’s 60-year-old landmark Law Against Discrimination.

A bill I am sponsoring with Senator Wayne R. Bryant, S-2522, to add this legal protection for mothers and pregnant women to the Law Against Discrimination, will most likely become law before the end of the year after clearing the Senate in June with unanimous, bipartisan support.

Personally, I don’t think it can happen soon enough.

As the father of four boys, I am grateful to share the responsibility for their upbringing with their mother, my wife, Shelley. Fortunately, both of us were blessed with the educational opportunities and family support to secure professional employment options outside the home.

But for many families, a mother working before or after a pregnancy is not an option – it is a necessity for survival. Obviously, it is totally appropriate to expand the protections guaranteed by the Law Against Discrimination to include women in the workplace who are mothers or who become pregnant.

When it was created in 1945, the Law Against Discrimination made it unlawful to subject people to differential treatment based on their race, creed or color. Over the years, it has been expanded to include national origin, nationality, ancestry, age, sex, marital status, domestic partnership status, affectional or sexual orientation, atypical hereditary cellular or blood trait, genetic information, liability for military service, mental or physical disability, perceived disability and

AIDS and HIV status.

By banning differential treatment for familial status, the Law Against Discrimination will protect pregnant women and mothers in employment issues, places of public accommodation, credit and business contracts. It already bans discrimination based on familial status in housing. In addition, the measure would require employers to provide “reasonable accommodations” in the workplace for pregnant women.

In a July ruling of the New Jersey Supreme Court involving a female casino worker who was dismissed after claiming a difficult pregnancy prevented her timely return from paid sick leave, the majority opinion held that a policy preference favoring pregnant women had to be enacted by the Legislature.

A dissenting opinion held that because pregnancy is unique to women, an “evenhanded” leave policy discriminates against those who bear children. I believe the case makes a good argument that we in the Legislature should update the Law Against Discrimination as soon as we can.

The Senate improved the initial measure by amending it to extend the protections of the Law Against Discrimination to temporary workers. That was important to ensure protections for women who may have faced discrimination in the workplace simply because they were not full time employees of a particular company. Also, the Attorney General, in consultation with the Director of the Division on Civil Rights, would establish guidelines to help employers adopt written employment policies prohibiting discrimination on the basis of pregnancy.

Senator John H. Adler, is a resident of Cherry Hill, a lawyer by profession and a New Jersey Democratic State Senator who also is the Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.