Dena Lockwood says her employer fired her after she stayed home from work to care for a sick child.
In what's being seen as a wake-up call to employers about an emerging area of employment law covering parents, Chicago's Commission on Human Relations has awarded more than $200,000 to a women who was fired from her job after she missed a meeting to care for a sick child.
Dena Lockwood's story began in 2004, when the 39-year-old single mother of two took a sales position at Professional Neurological Services, a Chicago-area company that sells medical tests to doctors. The company employed fewer than 50 workers at the time. According to the Chicago Tribune, which compiled Lockwood's story through commission documents and interviews with the former employee and her lawyer, Lockwood mentioned her kids in one of her job interviews. Asked if parenting duties would "prevent her from working 70 hours a week," Lockwood said no.
The company offered to hire her at a salary of $25,000 supplemented by a 10 percent sales commission. Other female sales reps with similar experience but who were not parents were allegedly hired at almost double Lockwood's base salary: $45,000, plus the 10 percent commission.
Lockwood negotiated, and won a base salary of $45,000, though she accepted a 5 percent sales commission. If she reached sales of $300,000, her contract said, the commission would jump to 10 percent. She also would receive five vacation days a year. When she protested, she says the company told her not to worry about the stated vacation policy.
The trouble began when Lockwood reached her $300,000 goal. She says the company responded by raising the target she'd need in order to attain an increase in her sales commission.
Then, on June 2, 2006, Lockwood's 4-year-daughter Lily woke up with pinkeye. She called a manager to request rescheduling a meeting since she wouldn't be able to come to work. A half hour later, the manager called back with words that chilled Lockwood: Unless she resigned, she would be fired with or without cause.
Why? "It just wasn't working out," Lockwood says the manager told her.
Out of a job, Lockwood says she couldn't pay the mortgage on her recently-purchased home, and she had to seek forbearance on her student loans. Worse, she told the Tribune, "My children had to see me stressed, depressed and anxious."
Chicago's human-rights commission's final order found that Lockwood was the victim of "blatant" discrimination against employees with children, citing examples from its investigation such as a colleague being given the day off to sort out a home repair.
A lawyer for Professional Neurological Services told the Tribune that the company will appeal the decision.
Though some employers have embraced family-friendly policies, nearly 500 cases claiming family responsibilities discrimination were filed in U.S. courts between 1996 and 2005, up 97 percent from the previous decade, a 2006 report by the WorkLife Law Center found. In response, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2007 issued guidance on applying existing laws forbidding discrimination based on gender, pregnancy, or disability to protect caregivers of children and aging parents.
Lockwood's case is the first involving parental discrimination to appear before the Chicago commission. "I'm excited because there aren't too many opportunities in the employment arena to have the first of something," Ruth Major, Lockwood's lawyer, told the Tribune. "I hope it creates the opportunity for employers to pay more attention to this issue and take proper precautions so it doesn't happen."
The case is also significant for shining a spotlight on the growing power of local human-rights commissions. In the past, lawyers and claimants have shied away from taking matters before human-rights commissions rather than to state and federal courts, assuming that commissions would not award significant damages. Lockwood's victory -- a payment of $213,000 for her ($100,000 of which represented punitive damages), plus another $87,000 for her lawyer -- will surely draw more cases before local commissions.
"While the scope of local laws may seem limited, their impact can be significant and costly for employers," Stephanie Bornstein of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California Hastings College of Law told the Tribune.
Inc. contributing editor COURTNEY RUBIN was for five years a London-based staff writer for People magazine. Rubin, a former senior writer for Washingtonian magazine, has written for the New York Times magazine, Time, Marie Claire, and other publications. She is the author of The Weight-Loss Diaries.