Young v. UPS, or What IS Pregnancy Anyway?

I’m seeing lots of posts about the Peggy Young vs. UPS SCOTUS case, but little discussion about what I find to be the most interesting aspect.

There’s a fair amount of ethical agreement that pregnant workers deserve reasonable medical accommodations in the workplace. But there’s a lot of disagreement over how to legally enforce it, because right now it’s a bit of a loophole. There was an amendment made to Title VI in 1978 that says references to “gender” include issues related to pregnancy. But Title VI only deals with programs and entities that receive federal funding, not private industry. Many suggest it should fall under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, which prohibits employer discrimination and requires reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities. It makes sense, because the kinds of accommodations required — light labor, limited standing, more water and bathroom breaks — are similar to those commonly provided under the ADA. It’s kind of a natural fit. BUT…

A whole lot of people understandably object to the implication that pregnancy is a disability.

The problem is that we don’t have a law that prohibits discrimination of and guarantees reasonable accommodations for people with medical conditions that are NOT disabilities.

I don’t have a zinger conclusion to this, I just find it really interesting. (And I’m just starting to familiarize myself with the relevant legislation.) Is there a medical condition besides pregnancy that qualifies as needing special accommodations but is not a disability? Does this issue reveal a larger problem with calling ANYTHING a disability, rather than simply a medical condition? Would the ERA have prevented this problem? Do we amend the ADA to say pregnancy is included despite it not being a disability? Do we need a separate law specifically for pregnant women? Wouldn’t it be better to have a blanket law that provides protection for all medical conditions?

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

What You Don’t Know You Don’t Know About Equal Pay

There’s been a lot of talk about equal pay lately, and it’s making me a little nuts, because most of what’s been said in public has been said by people who a) are totally oblivious to the history of equal pay legislation, and b) should really know better. So I – a regular person with no legal training – spent 30 minutes poking around online and am now more informed on the subject than most politicians and news/media personalities. Join me here in InformedVille, won’t you?

Last week, the trusty House of Representatives used the filibuster to block a vote on the Paycheck Fairness Act. A lot of people have strong feelings about that. Very few people bothered to learn what the Paycheck Fairness Act would actually have done. Most people think the Paycheck Fairness Act would have federally mandated equal pay for equal work, regardless of gender. Nope! And do you know why? Because a law mandating equal pay for equal work regardless of gender was passed in 1963. It’s called the Equal Pay Act. Catchy, innit?

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act passed a year later, expanding discrimination protection from wages and women to “compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment” and “race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.” (Note the absence of age and sexual orientation.) The differences between the EPA and Title VII are nuanced, but worth exploring. A lot of progress was made on employment discrimination in the mid-late 60’s, including the establishment of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in 1965.

But the Equal Pay Act had problems. Employers tried to make jobs ‘different’ by changing the titles… Until the Supreme Court said they had to stop in 1970. They also tried to argue that it wasn’t their fault women were willing to work for less than men and therefore established a lower market rate. SCOTUS told them that wasn’t ok in 1974. And other problems persisted; The Act allowed for wage differentials where there was a seniority system, a merit system, pay based on production volume, or any differential other than gender. This essentially gave employers a textbook for how to argue their way out of a claim, and did nothing to address the fact that it was incumbent on employees to discover that they were being discriminated against; a tall order given that employers often prohibit employees from asking about or discussing compensation.

Fast forward to 2009 and the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. Ledbetter worked for Goodyear for almost 20 years. Goodyear is one of those companies that prohibits employees from discussing their compensation. One day, Ledbetter received an anonymous note containing the salaries of three men who made more than she did for the same job. She filed an EEOC complaint. But the statute of limitations on such claims was 180 days from the first incident, which means she was about 19 years too late. So she sued, landed in the Supreme Court, and lost in a 5-4 ruling siding with Goodyear. In her dissenting opinion, Justice Ginsberg called upon Congress to change the law to allow women to file a complaint within 180 days of the last incident, meaning the last paycheck containing discriminatory wages – giving them a fighting chance to learn the discrimination was happening. Obama had just gotten elected thanks in part to female voters, so Congress acted quickly (imagine!), and the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 was the first piece of legislation he signed.

Finally we arrive back at the Paycheck Fairness Act. It would have done a few simple things to remedy some of the remaining problems with the Equal Pay Act:

  1. Prohibit retaliation against employees who ask about or discuss compensation,
  2. Empower the Department of Labor/EEOC to collect wage-related data (no, they’re not already doing that),
  3. Require employers to demonstrate that wage differentials are based on something other than gender,
  4. Stipulate reasonable criteria for comparing ‘equal’ jobs, and
  5. Strengthen penalties for violations.

That’s what the House refused to allow a vote on. Not government mandated equal pay – because government mandated equal pay happened 50 years ago.

So there you have it. You now know more than almost anyone you will hear talking about the issue of equal pay, and certainly more than the assholes who refuse to vote on it. Sorry if you find it as infuriating as I do. But in my better moments, it makes me feel informed, and proud to be informed, and that’s worth spreading. So SPREAD IT. And I mean that however you want me to mean it.

Equal Pay Gets Kissed and Kicked

Yesterday was Equal Pay Day! (Did you feel it?)

On the bright side, President Obama signed an executive order banning federal contractors from retaliating against employees who discuss their compensation. (It’s not exactly mandating equal pay for equal work, but many women don’t know they’re being paid less than their male peers (even in jobs dominated by women) because employees aren’t allowed to discuss compensation. This is one of the issues that gave rise to the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009, which changed the statute of limitations on filing an equal-pay complaint.

On the other hand, Senate Republicans blocked a vote on the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would extend protection for people who discuss their compensation to the rest of us, and would require the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to collect compensation data from employers so the government would have data on the issue. (One of those ‘how have they not been doing that this whole time?!’ things, isn’t it?)

It’s Vagina News Link Madness!

Holy cow, there’s a lot going on. Time to play catch-up. Ready? Let’s go:

  • I just finished a free online class in International Women’s Health and Human Rights through Stanford (they’re going to offer it again, and I HIGHLY recommend it – get on the list here). I learned a lot about the history of these issues in the UN, and specifically about the Millennium Development Goals. Last week, the 2014 Commission on the Status of Women ended “with an agreement that called for the acceleration of progress towards achieving the millennium development goals, and confirming the need for a stand-alone goal on gender equality and women’s empowerment in the set of international targets that will be introduced once they expire in 2015. The agreement also said gender equality must underpin all other goals.” The details are interesting and encouraging, and very much worth a read.
  • Last week also saw the Hobby Lobby case argued before the Supreme Court. The craziest part of the case, IMHO, is the fact that the entire argument is based on an objection to ACA coverage of IUDs and the morning-after pill, based on the belief that they cause abortion – which they absolutely, undeniably DON’T. (They prevent conception. Hence the word “contra-ception”. Spermy no meet eggy.) Yet this case has risen all the way to the Supreme Court because the owners of Hobby Lobby (and another company) BELIEVE they cause abortion, and that would violate their religious beliefs (never mind that a corporation can’t believe anything.) Anyway, I bring it up to introduce this great piece on our three female Supreme Court Justices, which pounds home the importance of gender parity in all levels of government.
  •  Buzzfeed isn’t just lists of .gifs… They’ve done some important reporting on campus sexual assault; specifically, legal violations serious enough to prompt the federal investigation of a school less than a mile from where I’m sitting right now.
  • Jimmy Carter has a new book out, ‘A Call to Action’, and in it, he blames selective application of religious dogma for the unconscionable treatment of women and girls around the world. “The most serious and unaddressed worldwide challenge is the deprivation and abuse of women and girls… This claim that women are inferior before God spreads to the secular world to justify gross and sustained acts of discrimination and violence against them… This is not just a women’s issue. It is not confined to the poorest countries. It affects us all.”
  • And finally, a great article from the Money section of The New York Times about how gender discrimination affects women’s salary negotiations in the workplace. Like most contemporary manifestations of sexism, it’s not overt; rather it’s a combination of learned behavior and double standards that make everyone complicit. The article is a solid step toward becoming aware of how we may be participating unknowingly, and how to stop.

Crazy States: WTF Hawaii?!

It’s been almost four months since our last edition of Crazy States, but we’re back with a biggie.

Hawaii’s in the process of passing a bill (HB 1926) that cracks down on a number of crimes, including prostitution. One of the things the original draft of the bill did was stipulate that police are not allowed to have sex with prostitutes in the pursuit of an investigation. Seems pretty straightforward, right? While there are some exceptions, like undercover cops being allowed to do drugs if it’s required in order for them to maintain cover, police are not allowed to break the law in order to enforce the law. But Hawaii police disagree. It turns out that for a long time in Hawaii, police have been allowed to have sex with prostitutes, and they’ve testified that they need to keep doing it.

It’s important to understand that there’s a huge overlap between prostitution and sex trafficking. A lot of people believe that most prostitutes are adults who have ‘chosen’ their profession, but the reality is that many were abducted, tricked, or sold into prostitution, and are being held there through a combination of violence, economic slavery, forced addiction, and a number of other tools of modern slavery. The average age of a trafficked prostitute is 13. Trafficked prostitutes are common in Hawaii, as the islands are a convenient stop between Asia and the US, are hubs for tourists and the military, and receive a steady flow of low-wage foreign agricultural workers and their families.

So if a police officer has sex with a prostitute, there’s a good chance he is adding to the exploitation and traumatizing of a child trafficking victim. In addition to the obvious ethical issue, Derek Marsh (who trains California police in best practices on human trafficking cases and twice has testified to Congress about the issue) points out that such a practice worsens victims’ already entrenched distrust of police. Why the distrust?

“Police abuse is part of the life of prostitution,” said Melissa Farley, the executive director of the San Francisco-based group Prostitution Research and Education. Farley said that in places without such police protections “women who have escaped prostitution” commonly report being coerced into giving police sexual favors to keep from being arrested…


There have been instances of police being accused of victimizing sex workers across the nation. In Philadelphia, a former officer is on trial facing charges of raping two prostitutes after forcing them at gunpoint to take narcotics. A former West Sacramento, Calif., officer is awaiting sentencing after being found guilty of raping prostitutes in his police cruiser while on patrol. And last year in Massachusetts, a former police officer pleaded guilty to extorting sex from prostitutes he threatened with arrest.

On the upside, HB 1926 proposes increased penalties for johns and pimps, while prostitution itself would remain a petty misdemeanor. But the bill has been amended to allow police to continue having sex with prostitutes, has passed the Hawaii state House, and is headed to the Senate.

Vagina-tastic Documentary Alert – ‘Vessel’

How many hours have been spent debating and discussing what can be done for women in places where abortion is legally or functionally inaccessible?


Here’s what Dr. Rebecca Gomperts, subject of SXSW Documentary Feature Audience Award winner ‘Vessel‘, did… She started an organization that, among other things, sends small ships to international waters outside countries where abortion is illegal, and invites women to come aboard and receive the education and supplies they need to undergo a safe medical abortion.

Go see ‘Vessel‘ and ‘Anita‘ (the documentary about Anita Hill) and have yourself a feminist double-feature!

Happy International Women’s Day!

Yes, it’s ridiculous that there’s an arguable need to pick a single day to highlight the accomplishments and challenges of more than half the world’s population, but there is, so I’m embracing it.

In celebration, here are a few links I’ve been saving up. Good reading & learning.

First, a man doing something wonderful for women in a place where male allies are desperately needed.

Second, I’m really glad I waited to post this one, because a few days ago it was a terrible story, and now it isn’t.

Third and finally, a FANTASTIC PBS documentary series about women in situations of conflict and refugee/displacement. It’s not uplifting, but it’s critically important to understanding the realities women face every day around the world.

Onward and upward!

One California Judge is Trying to Fix the Way US Courts Treat Sex Trafficking Victims

Hoo boy. This is one of those pieces that makes you want to stop everything you’re doing and find a way to help.

A lot of young women – often very young women – who work as prostitutes all over the world are there because they’re victims of sex trafficking. They were abducted, tricked, or even sold by their families into sexual slavery, working under threat of violence to pay off a ‘debt’ that never diminishes. Yet in the US, it’s not the pimps or johns who get arrested when the cops show up – it’s the girls; and instead of helping them escape slavery, the system makes their lives even worse.

“But in Los Angeles County, Judge Catherine Pratt has set up a special juvenile court to help victims of sex trafficking.

During the last few years, Pratt has been consumed by her work helping young victims of sex trafficking get treated as just that: victims. She says it’s been a tough battle because the justice system treats anyone who sells sex as a criminal — even a child.

In normal juvenile courts, young women who are picked up for prostitution don’t get counseling and other services — they get punished. Girls can be sentenced to juvenile detention or forced to testify against their exploiter…

Pratt remembers one case that made her believe the system was broken. A young girl was asked to testify against her pimp, in a public adult court, in a case that involved her being drugged into unconsciousness. She was asked by the district attorney to review a tape of the incident, which she had never seen, and identify the defendants in the court.”

I cannot even.

In a desperate search for an upside, thank goodness awareness of this crisis is beginning to gain traction, and people like Judge Catherine Pratt are working to find ways to enact some desperately needed change.