Dental assistant claims pregnancy got her fired

2010 01 11 10 50 51 128 Employeetermination 70

A Pennsylvania dental assistant who claims she was fired because she was pregnant has filed a discrimination lawsuit, reflecting a surge in the number of similar discrimination complaints filed in the U.S. since 1997.

Jennifer Fuller said she was fired by dentist Susan Susang in March 2006, a week after she disclosed her pregnancy to her boss, according to the suit she filed last month in Westmoreland County District Court.

"After informing the defendant [Susang] of her pregnancy, the defendant informed her that she would not grant her any maternity leave, sick days with pay, or time off as needed due to illness or family matters. Defendant further informed the plaintiff that she would not be able to employ her as a dental assistant due to her pregnancy," the lawsuit states.

Dr. Susang, who runs a family dentistry practice near Pittsburgh, did not return calls for comment.

Fuller said she was replaced by a female dental assistant who was not pregnant, according to her lawsuit. Fuller also could not be reached for comment.

“Employers feel mothers are more distracted; it limits their dedication and focus.”
— Cliff Palefsky, employment attorney

A national trend

Nationally, complaints such as Fuller's have risen dramatically over the past decade. Pregnancy discrimination complaints have nearly doubled between 1997 and 2009, according to a report by the Equal Employment Occupation Commission (EEOC). The agency received 3,977 such complaints in 1997; last year, 6,196 complaints were filed.

Even so, spokespeople for the American Dental Assistants Association and the American Dental Hygienists Association said they had no anecdotal evidence about whether their members had similar complaints.

San Francisco employment attorney Cliff Palefsky has noticed a growing number of complaints about pregnancy discrimination, especially during the current economic downturn, he said in an interview with Such suits are hard to prove because employers are loathe to admit that pregnancy was the reason for termination, he noted.

"There's been a really significant increase in the number of phone calls involving these cases," he said. "Usually it's some sort of workforce reduction or other pretext that's being used as an excuse."

Economic recession to blame

Pregnant employees are not the only ones being unfairly targeted, Palefsky pointed out. Employers are using the recession as a reason to fire or lay off others who are also specifically protected under workplace discrimination laws, including employees with disabilities or older workers, he said. "It provides a cover for them, and it's very unfortunate and common," he said.

Palefsky cited several reasons why employers fire pregnant women: It's inconvenient for employees to take extended leaves, many say they will return to work but don't, and, perhaps most important, there is a general bias by employers against mothers with young babies.

"Employers feel mothers are more distracted; it limits their dedication and focus," Palefsky said.

Asked why pregnancy discrimination complaints have risen so dramatically, EEOC spokesman James Ryan said in a phone interview with, "It's hard to explain doing something that's illegal and unethical, which is true of any kind of discrimination."

He agreed with Palefsky's assessment that employers are using the bad economy as a pretext for illegal terminations, but he also noted other factors behind the rising number of pregnancy discrimination complaints.

"More and more women are in the workforce, and pregnant women are becoming more and more aware of their rights," Ryan noted.

Also, he said many employers take a paternalistic attitude toward pregnant women. "They think, 'you shouldn't be working anymore; you should stay home with the baby,' " Ryan observed. "But it's really up to the mother and her doctor."

Laws were passed to prevent employers from illegally targeting certain employees, including pregnant workers, for a reason, Palefsky points out.

"These are important values in our society," he said. "That's why it was so important to pass these laws which protect workers -- women, and men, too. Remember, paternity leaves for men are protected, too."

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