Why HR needs to know about parental discrimination laws now

A study conducted by the Center for Worklife Law at the University of California Hastings College of Law recently uncovered something surprising: Nearly 30% of American workers are legally protected from family responsibilities discrimination (FRD) in the workplace.

Yet, it’s not a well-known area of employment law; in fact, at least 50 million employees and many of the HR professionals who support them are unaware of such protections or laws, says Cynthia T. Calvert, the center’s senior advisor on FRD.

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Four states—Alaska, Delaware, Minnesota and New York—and at least 191 cities, towns and counties have passed FRD laws.

“Workplace discrimination against employees [who are parents] is pretty common,” says Calvert, adding that, over the past six months, the center’s legal and COVID-19 hotlines have received double the number of calls involving parental discrimination than in the past. “[Supervisors assume] that employees who are parents will not be as committed to their jobs as other employees.”

Consider a manager who supervises two employees—one without kids and the other with parental duties. The first employee misses a deadline. The manager perceives it as an anomaly and gives the individual a free pass. But when the second employee misses a deadline, the same manager blames it on family obligations and doesn’t expect it to be a one-time event. So, the second employee may be overlooked for cherry assignments, promotions or possibly raises, she explains.

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Thirty-five of these laws also apply to employees who act as caregivers for aging parents or other family members. Others are so broad that they cover “family-like” relationships that are not formed by blood or marriage, she says.

Calvert says that HR needs to be on the lookout for negative personnel actions like bad performance evaluations or even disciplinary measures imposed by new supervisors who may feel the need to prove their value or justify their position.

“Biases operate most strongly when people don’t know each other,” she says, adding that one in five jurisdictions allows courts to order employers to pay uncapped punitive damages in addition to compensatory damages in FRD-related lawsuits.

Since some federal laws are patchy—for instance, FMLA laws don’t apply to employers with less than 50 workers—she says HR needs to learn which FRD laws apply to their jurisdiction, identify and investigate such complaints, insert language from FRD laws like “familial status” into workplace policies, and also train and coach supervisors on how to recognize and prevent FRD discrimination.

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“Parental discrimination has always happened but people were able to hide their family [obligations],” she says. “Once COVID hit, it was impossible [for that to continue]. HR can step up and help supervisors understand that employees who are parents need to be treated the same without exception.”

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