NJ Attorney General pursues pregnancy discrimination case in North Bergen

Woman alleges she was fired after filing a complaint against the company

Pregnant women have rights under state and federal law.
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Pregnant women have rights under state and federal law.

Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal and the Division on Civil Rights (DCR) announced on Aug. 24 that DCR will pursue a former corporate marketing director’s complaint against her ex-employer alleging pregnancy discrimination.

In her original 2018 complaint against her former employer, VCNY Home of North Bergen, the former marketing director alleged that her former employer denied her rights under the New Jersey Family Leave Act.

In 2019, the woman filed an amended complaint alleging that VCNY retaliated against her after she filed a complaint with DCR about the denial, and eventually fired her.

Her name was redacted from both complaints.

Pregnancy discrimination

The discrimination allegedly began soon after she advised VCNY that she was planning to take time off under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) to physically recover from giving birth, and then take an additional 12 weeks of leave under New Jersey’s Family Leave Act to care for her newborn.

Under the law, an employee who gives birth does not exhaust her New Jersey Family Leave Act time by first taking federal FMLA time to physically recover from childbirth.

However, VCNY sent the woman a letter in March 2018 claiming that federal FMLA and state Family Leave Act time run concurrently. The letter directed her to return to work on June 18, 2018, and warned that if she failed to do so, the company would view it as her resignation.

The marketing director filed her complaint with DCR on April 10, 2018. In January 2019, she filed an amended complaint alleging that, upon her return to work in July of 2018, VCNY retaliated against her in multiple ways and eventually discharged her as reprisal.

Alleged retaliation for speaking out

The woman alleged that VCNY retaliated against her when she returned to work after her leave by, among other things, diminishing her role in the company and excluding her from projects and meetings she had previously been involved in.

According to the complainant, VCNY fired her when she refused to take a two-week international business trip to India and China while she was breastfeeding her baby.

“New Jersey law protects the rights of new parents during those early days when infants require so much care,” Grewal said. “Employers should make certain they understand family leave protections under both state and federal law. We take these protections seriously, and will hold accountable employers who violate the rights of their workers.”

“No parent should be forced to choose between their job and caring for or breastfeeding their child,” said DCR Director Rachel Wainer Apter.

“And it is all too common for mothers, in particular, to be sidelined at work after they return from leave. That is illegal. New Jersey law protects a parent’s right to take leave to care for a newborn child and to return to the same position after leave. It also protects a parent’s right to breastfeed a child; employers must grant reasonable accommodations to employees who are breastfeeding unless doing so would be an undue burden on their operations.”

VCNY claims department “restructuring”

VCNY Home manufactures and imports bedding, window and bath textiles and other goods. VCNY hired the complainant in July 2016 as a marketing director. In that role, she was responsible for the development and implementation of marketing campaigns, promotional events, and digital marketing.

VCNY officials interviewed by DCR acknowledged a reduced role for the complainant after her return from pregnancy leave, and confirmed her exclusion from some meetings and events. However, they cited a marketing department “restructuring” as the reason, and denied retaliation.

As to the two-week international trip, when the complainant asked to be excused from the trip as a breastfeeding accommodation, VCNY offered to pay for her baby and a childcare provider to travel with her, the company said.

Complainant declined VCNY’s offer based on advice from her child’s pediatrician and provided VCNY with a medical note which explained why this international trip posed “significant health risks” to her child. She proposed other measures to support the trip. But VCNY allegedly fired her for her “inability or unwillingness to perform an essential function of job.”

Pursuing the case

DCR conducted an investigation into the case, and subsequently issued a Finding of Probable Cause against VCNY earlier this year. However, a Finding of Probable Cause does not resolve a civil rights complaint.

Rather, it means the state has concluded its preliminary investigation and determined there is sufficient evidence to support a reasonable suspicion the law has been violated.

The Division then attempted to resolve the matter through its conciliation process. Because no agreement was reached during conciliation, DCR will pursue the case in the Office of Administrative Law.

Investigator Justin Hoffer and Legal Specialist Carlos Bellido handled the VCNY investigation for DCR. Deputy Attorney General Farng-Yi Foo is handling the case in the OAG.

For updates on this and other stories, check www.hudsonreporter.com and follow us on Twitter @hudson_reporter. Daniel Israel can be reached at disrael@hudsonreporter.com.