Disheartening stories of discrimination over maternity leave

Disheartening stories of discrimination over maternity leave

By PENDA HONEYGHAN

Monday, December 09, 2019

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WITH talks fresh on the table about paternity leave for fathers, the Maternity Leave Act of 1979 has been placed under the microscope. The Act outlines that a woman should not only have a right to a period of 12 weeks of maternity leave, but that she should be paid for at least eight.

Unfortunately, there are several employers who have been devising strategies to cheat female employees out of their right to access the benefits of this Act. Below, women share disheartening stories of discrimination and other issues they faced at a time when they were vulnerable and needed the most support, simply because the Maternity Leave Act either did not protect them or does not provide adequate protection for them.

CONTRACT PERIOD

The labour market has been dominated by a surge in short-term employment contracts. This has made it impossible for women to accumulate the minimum of 52 weeks of continuous employment to qualify for the 12 weeks of maternity leave under the Maternity Leave Act.

Amanda, 28, toll collector: I had been working as a toll collector for over a year when I got pregnant. I was on my third contract for the period, but I didn't understand that when you sign short-term contracts in Jamaica you don't get things like maternity leave as well. I believed that once you were working for like a year you would automatically get it. Anyhow, I decided, not knowing they didn't give it, to work until I was almost ready to have the baby before I asked for time off. At nine months and ready to burst any day I went in to give them the information on when I would leave and they told me that they couldn't pay me for the eight weeks because I didn't qualify. According to them, as a short-term contract worker I wasn't entitled to maternity leave. They told me that I had to resign my job, then reapply after the baby was born. Within six weeks post-partum, after healing up a bit, I had to reapply for the job and go back to work because I didn't have the money to take care of me and the baby.

Marlene, 38, accountant: I was working with a company as a contract employee for five years. It had been difficult finding a job so when I was told about the job on contract I still grabbed it. I knew there were no health benefits, but what shocked me was when it was time to apply for maternity leave the manager told me that they couldn't honour it because I was a contract worker. She explained that I was signing six-month contracts at a time and so basically I was never employed at any point in time for 12 months, which is the minimum time someone can work to get maternity leave. I was so hurt, I made them plan an office baby shower and I just decided not to turn up for it. Fortunately, my contract would have ended in a few months, so after taking three months unpaid leave I returned to work and completed the contract period. My friends, aware of the situation, helped me to find a new job because I was no longer comfortable working for that company.

PAID LEAVE PERIOD

Some women believe that they were fired because their employers found out about their pregnancies and they did not want to pay them for the stipulated eight weeks of maternity leave they were to receive under the Maternity Leave Act.

Shanice, 27, loan officer: I was working for a loan company for over 15 months when I got pregnant. I started out as a normal loan officer, but I worked hard and was promoted to supervisor. When I enquired about maternity leave I was told that all they could do was to allow me to work up until the time of my delivery, and if I still needed a job I could come back to it after. I was very upset and so I, of course, expressed this openly. I was fired because of it. I didn't have the strength to fight it so I just left it alone.

Sharry-Ann, 30, customer service agent: A girl who worked at the first call centre I went to was pregnant when I started. A few months later when I started at a new call centre she was also there, so I asked why she'd left. She said after she applied for the leave they started finding every possible fault with her, and by the time it was time to go on leave her team leader came to her and told her that he didn't think she would be capable of managing the shift and the demands of the job with a newborn to care for. Also, because she had complications during the pregnancy, she had maxed out her sick days. They told her that she was on 'red' for absence and sickouts, and it would only get worse with the baby. They told her to resign and when she told them she couldn't afford to, they fired her.

ONLY EIGHT WEEKS PAID LEAVE

Women are entitled to a period of three months maternity leave, two of which are paid. However, many women cannot afford to take the additional month even though they haven't completely healed well and are still getting to know their little ones.

Michelle, 33, teacher: I believe that the leave is way too short. When I was to return to work my body had not fully recovered. It's also really hard to leave your two-month-old baby at daycare. It was difficult introducing the bottle and getting him to take the formula at that early age. Then, for me, it was very exhausting because I had to stay up at night. In my case I had to stay up most times alone, because my spouse had to go to work very early so I made him rest. So it would be good if they could take the time given into consideration because children need their moms around a little while longer, at least. The time is not enough.

Tianna, 25, marketing consultant: I had to hand over my baby at two months old to strangers, although I had thoroughly vetted them. The point is, I couldn't afford to stay with my child a day over the two months. I had hardly healed following my C-section. I had used up all my sick days and I, being a single mother, couldn't take the three months because that was a “luxury” I couldn't afford. A few days back on the job I fainted — emotionally and physically it was too much. I could barely care for my child which caused me so much stress. I felt like I was going insane, like I was being punished for having a baby. Thankfully things have settled now, but I wouldn't advise women who struggle with conditions like depression and who don't have money that could keep them for at least three months to have a baby.

CAP ON NUMBER OF CHILDREN

The Act states that a qualified worker shall not be entitled to be paid maternity pay if that employer had granted her maternity leave with pay in respect of three or more previous pregnancies.

Shanice, 32, communications director: I didn't realise that my two miscarriages would be considered too, and after my last child was born early, my HR director called me to ask when I would be returning to work as I had used up most of my sick days. Turns out that as far as they were concerned, my one living child and two late-term miscarriages counted as three pregnancies, and so I was not entitled to any more maternity leave with my fourth pregnancy, even though this was just the second living baby. I had to use my 12 sick days and one week vacation, then return to work when my preemie was mere weeks old.

ENTITLEMENT TO WORK IN THE SAME CAPACITY

The act states that the worker to whom leave is granted shall be entitled to return to work in the capacity and place to which she was employed under the original contract of employment, but some employers know how to circumvent this.

Maria, 37, architect: When I went on maternity leave I was supervising some juniors, and as far as the law is concerned I should return to work in the same capacity. But what my employers did was to change around some titles, and while I kept my original title, I actually came back to work with no supervisory duties at all — in fact, one of the people I had supervised was now my senior.


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