Mothers, not only do you have your own day Sunday, you also are the primary beneficiaries of a growing number of laws and court rulings granting workplace protections to caregivers.




Several states and cities are passing or considering legislation to ban job discrimination against workers with responsibilities to care for children, aging parents or ill spouses. Caregiving discrimination lawsuits have exploded &

with plaintiffs often winning &

although some employers worry this is making it harder to fire workers whose caregiving duties are an excuse for poor performance.




These laws and other actions are based on an emerging legal doctrine built around the concept of "family responsibilities discrimination." The doctrine is based on evidence that pregnant women and caregivers often are passed over for jobs, dinged on performance reviews or blocked from promotions. Employers assume they will be absent more frequently, won't work as hard or be as committed to their careers as those without caregiving duties.




"We've all heard about the glass ceiling," said Joan Williams, who teaches property law at Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco. "But most women never get near it because they're stopped by the maternal wall."




Nora Lopez contends that her pregnancy led to her being fired as a Walgreen Co. store manager.




Lopez worked for the drugstore chain for 12 years, becoming store manager with a string of positive evaluations, when she became pregnant in 2005. On days when she suffered from morning sickness, Lopez said she received her district manager's permission to come in a half-hour late and let another employee open her Vallejo, Calif., store, as other store managers had done on occasion.




But when a new district manager took over, he told her she had violated store policy by not opening the store herself, Lopez said.




He and other company officials pressured Lopez to resign, she said. When she refused, Walgreen fired her in November 2005. Lopez, who already had two children, lost her medical benefits months before her son, Angel, was born.




The 41-year-old is now suing the chain for back pay and damages.




Walgreen spokesman Michael Polzin said that "policy violations" by Lopez led to her dismissal.




"I felt like I had no voice, I felt I had no rights," Lopez recalled. "I get sick when I'm pregnant. I can't help it."




Caregiving discrimination lawsuits like Lopez's have surged, rising 400 percent between 1996 and 2006, versus a 23 percent increase in all other employment-related discrimination claims, according to the Center for WorkLife Law at Hastings, which Williams directs.




The plaintiffs &

women and men &

have prevailed in more than half the cases, Williams said, because managers often made statements to female employees such as, "Women should be at home raising babies," or "Oh my god, she's pregnant again."




Generational attitudes partly explain the litigation boom. Baby-boomer women felt so lucky to get good jobs that they often didn't complain if they were treated less favorably than men, Williams said. But younger women "feel entitled to be in the workforce" and less tolerant about discrimination.




"When pushed, they sue," she added.




The family responsibilities doctrine includes existing statutes, such as those barring pregnancy discrimination. But backers argue it also shields other caregivers who are not in the text of current statutes.




For example, federal law requires employers to accommodate the needs of disabled workers and grant employees leave to care for sick or disabled relatives. But no federal statute forbids job discrimination on the basis of an individual's parenting status.




In California, the law bars job discrimination on the basis of sex and marital status, among other factors, but not caregiving. A bill now before the state Senate amends the Fair Employment and Housing Act, extending that protection to parents and workers with an ill or disabled spouse or aging relatives. SB 836, sponsored by State Democratic Sen. Sheila Kuehl, would apply to businesses with five or more employees. It is scheduled for a vote in the Senate Appropriations Committee on Monday.




Alaska, and nine cities and counties including the District of Columbia, Atlanta and Chicago, already have passed similar legislation. Lawmakers in Pennsylvania and New York are considering measures.




Courts often are deciding in favor of caregivers.




In a 2004 ruling, a New York federal appeals court sided with school psychologist Elana Back, who was denied tenure after her child was born despite earlier positive performance reviews and assurances that she would receive tenure. Back's supervisors questioned whether her commitment to work would suffer now that she "had little ones at home," according to court records. The court granted Back a new trial.




Maryland state trooper Howard Knussman asked for leave under state law to care for his newborn daughter and wife, who was confined to bed because of a difficult pregnancy. His supervisor denied Knussman's request, explaining, "God made women to have babies and, unless (he) could have a baby, there is no way (he) could be primary care(giver)," and was ineligible for leave under state law, according to Knussman's lawsuit. In a 2001 ruling, a federal appeals court upheld the trooper's claim for damages.




A panel on work-life balance convened in April by the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission underscored concern over caregiving bias. With more women in the workforce, "what once were individual issues really have become societal issues, and as a society we really need to find a way to make it work," said commission vice chair Leslie Silverman.




Complaints filed by pregnant workers with the EEOC and state and local agencies soared 45 percent between 1992 and 2006, to a record 4,901. The agency has found merit in a higher percentage of these complaints over the years than in allegations involving race, religion or other categories, said EEOC spokesman David Grinberg.




Some employer groups are concerned that the pro-caregiver movement could be going too far.




The California Chamber of Commerce worries that it "would impair, legally or in practice, the ability of employers to enforce workplace attendance and performance rules," said spokesman Vince Sollitto.




One concern comes when a "marginal employee" becomes pregnant, said Scott Tiedemann, a Los Angeles lawyer who represents employers. "Suddenly they're cloaked with protections under California law" that they didn't have before becoming pregnant.




But some employers say they have avoided litigation and reaped benefits by becoming more sensitive to staffers' caregiving needs.




Jim Johnson invited the 60 administrative staffers at his Denver moving and storage business to work more flexible hours or from home. A third of them accepted.




"This group has had far less turnover than the rest of our group," he said. "This is a benefit I can offer that's not a direct cost to me and it's highly regarded."