Parents in the Workplace: Discrimination on the Basis of “Familial Status”

In the classic film “Kramer vs. Kramer,” Dustin Hoffman’s character, Ted Kramer, loses his high-powered job as an advertising executive. Once the prized protégé of his boss Jim, Ted has fallen out of favor since becoming sole caregiver to his five-year-old son, Billy. His parenting duties have meant no more late evenings at the office, either working or just drinking with Jim. Now Ted has to rush home every evening to tend to Billy.  Jim, who has taken to sneeringly calling Ted “Mother Kramer,” begins systematically cutting Ted out of important meetings and decisions, and ultimately fires him.

Ted’s story would be all too familiar to many working parents today, particularly mothers. And since a new law was enacted in New York earlier this year, it would also be illegal.

Effective January 19, 2016, the New York Human Rights Law was amended to outlaw discrimination in employment based on “familial status.” The statute generally applies to employers with four or more employees. The protected category of “familial status” includes (a) anyone who is pregnant, has a child, or is in the process of securing legal custody of a child; and (b) one or more individuals under the age of 18 being domiciled with a parent or other person with legal custody, or such parent’s designee.

By banning discrimination on the basis of “familial status,” the law prohibits employers from treating parents differently based on a bias against working mothers or parents in general. The law does not require employers to make special accommodations for parents, such as allowing them to miss work, arrive late, or leave early for child-related reasons. All that is required is equal treatment – i.e., if an employer has a policy of granting employees time off to attend to personal matters, this benefit should be extended to parents on the same basis it is extended to non-parents.

While a primary intent of the new law is to protect working mothers from discrimination, its protection is not limited to mothers; fathers are covered as well. Let’s take another look at Ted Kramer. Before Ted’s wife left him, Jim had trusted Ted enough to hand him the reins on a major account. After his wife left, although Ted could no longer stick around the office in the evenings as he had before, he made up for it by taking work home with him. He was still doing his job – until he was effectively prevented from doing so by having his responsibilities chipped away. Under the new law, Ted’s diminished responsibilities and ultimate termination would give rise to a valid claim of “familial status” discrimination.

What this boils down to is a need for employers to eradicate any bias, whether conscious or unconscious, they may have against working parents. If you find yourself thinking, “Jennifer is a good worker, but she’s got two little kids at home and another on the way; there’s no way she could handle the responsibilities of this promotion, so I’m giving it to [childless] Dave,” then you need to make some changes.

While this particular law applies to employers in New York State, similar laws have been passed in other states, including Oregon and Minnesota.  If you have any questions about “familial status” discrimination, you should contact an exprienced human resources consultant or employment lawyer at Portnoy, Messinger & Pearl, & Associates, Inc. at (516) 921-3400 or info@pmpHR.com.

Check out our upcoming educational workshops for Human Resources professionals, here.



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