Amazon Proves U.S. Maternity Leave Still Broken

Is maternity leave for women getting better? Yes, thanks to some progressive companies, but Julia Cheiffetz's experience at Amazon shows we still have a way to go.

Amazon Proves U.S. Maternity Leave Still Broken Frank Gaertner/Shutterstock.com

Netflix recently made a pretty incredible offer to employees who are new moms and dads: Take as much time off as you want during the first year your child's life and we'll still pay you. Fellow tech companies Google and Facebook are also pretty flexible to new parents, as is Microsoft, but an essay published on Medium by a former employee of another tech giant shows that we still have a long way to go when it comes to maternity rights.

Julia Cheiffetz started with Seattle-based Amazon in 2011 and was "dazzled" at her coworker's talents, but found one thing lacking: "I quickly noted, when it came to leadership positions, they were almost all men."

Cheiffetz soon found out why when she went on leave to have a baby and battle cancer. First, her health insurance was mysterious canceled. "Dozens of panicked emails and phone calls later, the whole thing was, I was told, a glitch in the system," she writes. Then, when she returned from her five-month leave, a colleague told her that the majority of employees who reported to her had been reassigned to other managers.

The final straw was when she was put on a performance improvement plan, otherwise known as what she calls "a signal at Amazon that your employment is at risk."

The way Cheiffetz writes about her experiences at Amazon makes it seem as if she was targeted because of her double-whammy maternity and medical leave. And, unfortunately, it's not as uncommon as we'd like to think.

"I see this happen often to women in these high-stress, demanding positions," says Raymond Aranza, an employment law attorney with The Law Office of Marks, Clare and Richards in Omaha, Neb. "She had a role that was apparently very important to Amazon and felt that they needed her there all the time."

But, Cheiffetz—and you—are protected by federal laws created specifically to keep discrimination from happening when taking time off is necessary.

"In her case, she potentially had three acts on her side: The Family and Medical Leave Act, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act and the Americans With Disabilities Act, since she had cancer," Aranza says.

Under the FMLA, eligible employees—including new moms—are allowed up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave with a guarantee that they can return to their previous job, or a similar position.

"We don't know all the facts in this case since it's only her side, but it appears from her essay that they decided while she was on leave to go ahead and discipline her," he continues. "If this is all true, it seems that she feels strongly that they set her up to fail."

The caveat in this case is that Cheiffetz had to take longer than the 12 weeks allotted in the FMLA, but she still had protection against discrimination based on both the PDA and the ADA. "Cancer is protected under the Americans With Disabilities Act," Aranza says. With the PDA, companies are required to treat employees who are temporarily unable to work because of their pregnancy as no different than employees who are temporarily disabled for other reasons. "The law says companies are required to accommodate an employee with a disability. It seems like the only accommodation she wanted was to return to her same job after her treatment."

And since she wasn't accommodated there, it's possible she could've brought a case against Amazon for discrimination. If you face a similar situation, Aranza recommends that your first step is to seek the advice of an attorney specializing in employment law—and pronto.

"You should seek all options that are available," he advises. This could mean litigation against your company, but Aranza is quick to say that's not the only answer.

"Be careful because it's your career," he adds. "You face the dilemma of burning bridges [when you bring a court case]." Ask yourself if the potential cost of bringing a case is worth it to you, "or ask yourself: 'Is it wise to file a lawsuit, or does it make sense to find some sort of other solution, like another job?'"

That's what Cheiffetz decided to do—she resigned from Amazon and is now in a better place in life.

"I've moved on. I'm healthy," she writes. "I have a great job doing work I love." In the meantime, America, maybe it's time you really did give new moms a break.

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