Opening Statements

A New Minefield

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Heads up, employers: caregivers are the newest protected class. According to a study by the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California’s Hastings College of Law, treating workers unfavorably because of their family responsibilities can result in significant liability.

“This is a percolating area of the law,” says Elaine Fox, a management-side employment lawyer at Seyfarth Shaw in Chicago. “Many employees are in the ‘sandwich generation.’ They have young children and also aging parents. … Family responsibilities discrimination is a new area that plaintiffs attorneys can mine.”

Suits alleging bias against workers caring for children or parents have increased 400 percent in the last decade, with the average verdict topping $500,000, according to Family Responsibilities Discrimination: Litigation Update 2010.

Employees prevail in about half the suits—much more than in other employment cases—and in every industry against employers of all sizes.

Supervisors can’t make assumptions about the value of employees based on their caregiving responsibilities and then take negative personnel actions, according to study author Cynthia Thomas Calvert, who is deputy director and general counsel of the Center for WorkLife Law.

Even lawyers, who should know better, ought to pay attention. The study shows that at least 36 law firms have been sued for caregiver discrimination.

See “Caregiver Cases by the Numbers.”

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