Berge Ford has paid $70,000 to a Mesa woman and agreed to provide employees with more training in pregnancy discrimination to settle a federal lawsuit, the Phoenix office of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission announced Tuesday.
The commission filed the suit after 23-year-old Mailyn Pickler was fired in December 2000. The EEOC argued that Pickler, who was pregnant with her son, Jesse, was terminated because the company feared it might be liable if she became ill while driving company vehicles.
“This is a situation where they just assumed because she was pregnant, she was going to be throwing up on their cars,” said EEOC regional attorney Mary Jo O'Neill. “That's the kind of stereotyping and ignorance we're talking about.”
An attorney for the car dealer said the business did not discriminate against Pickler.
“We felt the settlement was reasonable in reflection of the cost of litigating against the government,” said Don Johnsen. “What happens in many cases like this . . . at some point it's not unusual for the other side's settlement demands to reach the point where it makes economic sense to go ahead and resolve the case. The EEOC's demands had been, shall we say, significantly higher than what the resolution was.”
The case is the latest pregnancy discrimination case that the EEOC has handled.
“We've had an 182 percent increase in charges filed based on pregnancy over the last 10 years,” O'Neill said. "That's a huge jump. I don't know if maybe employers have forgotten that pregnancy discrimination is illegal. Sometimes, when times get hard economically, we see an increase in certain kinds of discrimination, including pregnancy discrimination.”
Berge said it fired Pickler because it had concerns about her ability to perform her job in light of her morning sickness, not merely because she was pregnant. The company also said it was concerned with safety and Pickler's physical well-being.
“Here's a big employer, here's somebody who should be sophisticated and should know what they're doing,” O'Neill said of Berge, adding that a lot of employers provide management training on sexual harassment, but they forget to address pregnancy discrimination.
Pickler, a student and stay-at-home mother, said she was scared when she was fired just before Christmas. She had been working at Berge for three to four months as a general services technician. Her duties included cleaning, picking up trash, monitoring the front desk and driving the company's customer shuttle.
“This hopefully won't happen again,” Pickler said. “I think pregnancy is one of the coolest things a person can ever experience, and for someone to say you can't do something while you're pregnant is ridiculous. I just don't understand it.”
U.S. District Court Judge Susan Bolton said the defendants “appear largely to have relied on their own assumptions about pregnant women and morning sickness in making the termination decision, even in the face of unequivocal statements by Ms. Pickler prior to termination that she did not anticipate any difficulties in fulfilling her employment responsibilities and would inform them should she she perceive a safety issue in her continued performance.”
Johnsen said that Berge has had written policies prohibiting discrimination for years.