HOUSTON—According to the Houston Chronicle, companies like to boast about being family friendly, but when pregnancies, newborns and sick children collide with business needs, many times it's not the family that comes first. In the category of “Is that still going on?” consider the case of Veronica Wallace.

Wallace said her working life took a definite downward slide during her annual job evaluation when she was pregnant with her second child. A nurse at Houston's Methodist Hospital, Wallace said her boss gave her an ultimatum during her evaluation: her nursing career or her family.

Wallace had become pregnant with her second child almost immediately after returning from maternity leave with her first child and said she was stunned by the directive. She said she had never missed work because of a sick child or because of her pregnancies, nor had she been criticized for her job performance.

But while she was pregnant with her third child, she was fired. Wallace sued Methodist for pregnancy discrimination and was recently awarded $507,500 in damages by a Houston jury, reported the paper.

The hospital said Wallace was fired for falsifying a doctor's order, but that's something that nurses routinely do, according to Beatrice Mladenka-Fowler, a Houston lawyer who represented Wallace. When a doctor gives a treatment plan, he often leaves out several intermediate steps, Wallace said. So nurses routinely perform the routine tasks and write up the request as if the doctor had specifically requested it.

But Wallace believes that her pregnancies — three in three years — were viewed by her supervisor as a liability to the hospital. They had to hire another nurse to fill in, yet the hospital still had to pay Wallace for her vacation and sick leave.

Wallace said there were other signs things weren't going well at work: Tensions escalated when she refused a request to return to work earlier than she planned after the birth of her second baby. And when employees were allowed to cut back their shifts by eight hours every two weeks yet still keep their full benefits, Wallace said her boss let her know she didn't want her signing up for the new program. Wallace did anyway.

The paper said the 35-year-old mother of three daughters, who are now five, four and three years old, found herself out of a job four days before Christmas in 1994. She knew she had a case when a nurse called to tell Wallace that the supervisor was heard telling coworkers that Wallace was fired for being pregnant three times in three years.

Allegations denied

Methodist wouldn't talk about the case, but indicated in a written statement the hospital does not discriminate based on pregnancy and denies Wallace's allegations. About 500 hospital employees are pregnant each year, and the decision to terminate Wallace was reviewed and approved by a female supervisor who did not know she was pregnant, according to Methodist. A Methodist spokeswoman said the hospital is confident the jury's verdict will be overruled or at least the damages will be reduced by U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal.

Many employers still believe employees can serve only one master and they want to be that master, said Joe Ahmad, an employment lawyer who has represented women in pregnancy claims.

Though the problem persists, pregnancy discrimination complaints make up a minuscule portion of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's workload. Nationwide in 1998, the commission received 4,219 pregnancy discrimination complaints out of a total 79,786, continued the report.

The small numbers, however, don't tell the whole story. They could be the result of a coding problem, said H. Joan Ehrlich, district director of the commission in Houston. If a case involves a firing, the pregnancy case code may have been left off, making it appear as though pregnancy weren't involved.

Ellen Bravo, co-director of Nine to Five, National Association of Working Women in Milwaukee, says most women also don't do anything about it because it happens at such a stressful time in their lives. And almost half of all workers, those who work for firms with fewer than 50 employees or haven't had enough time on the job, are not covered under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, which requires employers to give their workers 12 weeks of leave to care for a newborn.

(Houston Chronicle and Pro-Life Infonet)