‘Your Baby Or Your Job’

A federal judge has ruled that female employees of Novartis Pharmaceuticals can move forward with a pregnancy discrimination lawsuit they filed. The employees contend the company discriminated against them for being pregnant and suggested they should have abortions.

NEW YORK — Their case has the potential to drive the issue of workplace pregnancy and abortion into the headlines. A federal judge has given female employees of Novartis Pharmaceuticals the okay to sue.

The case is one of the country’s largest-ever gender discrimination class-action suits, and includes a claim that a manager advised that an employee have an abortion.

A former employee who quit in 2006 says she became pregnant in February 2004. When she informed Albany District Manager Bruce Holstein, Holstein allegedly told her to have the abortion.

“Specifically, Mr. Holstein said, ‘In my religion, women who unexpectedly get pregnant have abortions,’ and let me know that ‘as my friend,’ it would be acceptable in his eyes to have an abortion,” the plaintiff’s sworn deposition states.

Contacted at home, Holstein denied telling the employee to get an abortion.

“This is bizarre,” Holstein said of the question. “I don’t know you, I don’t know who you are, and this is an issue with someone suing my employer so you shouldn’t be contacting me. It’s just extremely upsetting that someone would make a comment like that about me. It’s extremely, extremely upsetting. We need to end this conversation right now, and I’m going to contact the personnel office at my company.”

Asked again if he suggested the plaintiff have an abortion, Holstein said: “Absolutely not. That’s absurd.”

Sherry Pudloski, executive director of communications for Novartis Pharmaceuticals, declined to comment on specifics pertaining to the suit, but said the company supports all women, pregnant or not.

“Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corporation strongly disagrees with the allegations and we look forward to presenting our side of the story in court,” Pudloski said.

Pudloski said the company has “strong policies that are women and family friendly.”

“We have made arrangements for pregnant women and mothers to work part time, to work from home, and we have a subsidized childcare arrangement with national childcare providers,” Pudloski said.

Indeed, the company has been cited for eight years in a row by Working Mother magazine as one of the country’s top 100 companies for working mothers, and was ranked No. 1 on Fortune magazine’s list of “World’s Most Admired Companies.”

But Angela Corridan, a Washington-based attorney representing plaintiffs, said female Novartis employees from different regions of the country tell of similar patterns of discrimination involving supervisors who discriminate against mothers and discourage pregnancy.

“The environment they were surrounded by was so clearly discriminatory that it affected their pay and their rights to take maternal leave,” Corridan said. “Many women describe trauma and an extreme level of stress from working for managers who made comments that discouraged pregnancy or demeaned motherhood.”

Corridan said in deposing women from Novartis she became convinced it was “almost a professional death-knell” to become pregnant.

“From a civil rights perspective, this type of work environment is clearly a setback in time,” she said.

Corridan added it’s important that the company be held accountable in order that corporate America isn’t led to believe that pregnant employees are less valuable than men or women who choose not to have children.

The suit seeks $200 million, and so far it involves 19 women who worked in 16 states. It decribes “systemic gender discrimination” in compensation, promotions, personnel evaluations and pregnancy-related matters. Plaintiffs also submitted to the court declarations from 87 past and present female employees, and two expert reports.

“There’s a large volume of statements and other evidence showing this pattern of discrimination,” Corridan said.

One employee’s declaration states that she was told she “did not qualify for a pay increase” because she had not been in her territory during maternity leave. Another employee declaration told of a manager who said, “First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes flex time and a baby carriage.”

Another declaration said managers who led employee-training sessions encouraged women “not to get pregnant.” The employee recalled one training session in which the manager discouraged pregnancy and then looked at her pregnant stomach and said, “Oops, too late.”

“It’s an egregious comment to make in the work environment, whether it was done with a joking attitude or not,” Corridan said. “We take every comment like that very seriously, because pregnant women should not be made to feel like they’re somehow a detriment to society or the corporation they work for.”

Sonia Ossorio, president of the National Organization for Women’s New York City chapter, said she’s outraged if allegations in the suit are true. Though the organization lobbies for abortion rights, Ossorio said her organization defends the rights of women in the workforce to have babies without repercussion.

“It’s one of the most vile things I’ve ever heard,” Ossorio said about the alleged request that a Novartis employee get an abortion. “Unfortunately, it’s not all that uncommon. I know a woman who had a child, and very quickly was pregnant again in the same year. Her business partner didn’t like hearing about the second pregnancy, and he basically said the same thing — that maybe she should consider not having the child.”

Ossorio said “corporate America” has a long way to go in accommodating the needs of working women who want children. As a former business reporter, the NOW executive has heard scores of stories from working women who were discriminated against for getting pregnant.

“Women have babies, and it’s that simple,” Ossorio said. “Corporate America needs to understand this. We’ve made some progress, but many other industrialized countries offer paid maternity leave, longer maternity leave, and even generous paternity leave, realizing the importance of the need for fathers, as well, to bond with newborns.”

Wayne Laugesen

is based in Boulder, Colorado.