Pennsylvania Moms Fight Hiring Bias

Pennylvania mothers rally against a form of job discrimination. Their state is one of many where it's not illegal to refuse ask about marital or family status during a job interview. Joel Rose of member station WHYY reports.

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In Pennsylvania, activists are pushing to make it illegal for companies to ask people applying for a job if they're married or whether they have children. Right now federal law does not explicitly prohibit discrimination based on marital and family status and neither does Pennsylvania's state law.

Joel Rose of member station WHYY introduces us to the people who are working to change that.

JOEL ROSE: Kiki Peppard left New York for Pennsylvania in 1994 after she decided Long Island was just too expensive. She was a single mother with two young children when she relocated to the Poconos and started answering want ads for secretaries.

Ms. KIKI PEPPARD: On each and every job interview, the very first question asked of me was are you married. And then the second question asked me was do you have children.

ROSE: She says that one was usually the last question, too.

Ms. PEPPARD: I would say to the employer what do you mean the interview is over. Don't you want to know how fast I can type? Don't you want to know my skills? And each one said no, we don't hire mothers with children. They take off too much time from work.

ROSE: Peppard eventually did find a job, but for a while she went on welfare to support her family. She says she went through more than a dozen unsuccessful job interviews before complaining to the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission. But the commission told her something that surprised her. In Pennsylvania, it's not illegal to ask about family or marital status during a job interview.

Those questions are not forbidden by federal law either, says Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, director of a national advocacy group called MomsRising. Rowe-Finkbeiner said she even found herself explaining this on a recent trip to Capitol Hill.

Ms. KRISTIN ROWE-FINKBEINER (MomsRising): In fact, it's not illegal in 28 states, it's not illegal to discriminate in hiring based on parental status and on marital status. Many congressional members actually thought it was illegal and were surprised to hear that it wasn't.

ROSE: There are 22 states that have passed laws making it explicitly illegal to ask whether a job applicant is married. But even in the other 28, employers are better off not asking. That's according to Joan Williams, who runs the Center for Work Life Law at University of California, Hastings.

Ms. JOAN WILLIAMS (University of California, Hastings): An employer is extremely ill advised to ask a woman whether or not she has children or whether she's a single mom unless he asks exactly the same questions of men, which of course virtually never occurs.

ROSE: In the last few years, Williams says workplace lawsuits based on sex discrimination have ended in some very large jury awards. She thinks a lot of employers are getting the message. So does Homer Floyd, executive director of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission.

Mr. HOMER FLOYD (Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission): But there's still come employers out there who do commit these kinds of violations. And they come to our attention.

ROSE: Floyd has pushed for a pair of bills that would add the words marital and familial status to the list of protected categories under Pennsylvania law. Secretary turned activity Kiki Peppard pushed to have the bills introduced six years ago. But they've died in committee twice. Republican State Senator John Gordner chairs the committee on labor and industry. Gordner says he's willing to hold hearings on the Senate bill, but he isn't convinced his constituents really want it.

Senator JOHN GORDNER (Republican, Pennsylvania): We've probably logged in maybe about 100 phone calls, e-mails from people outside of the state that have not received anything from within my own senatorial district on this paritular bill.

ROSE: And the bill faces opposition from the business lobby. Brian Kelly is the director for the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry, which would likely oppose the change if it came up for a vote.

Mr. BRIAN KELLY (Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry): The basis that, you know, it would make it harder for employers to legitimately discharge employees, possibly create additional lawsuits on the basis of discrimination.

ROSE: Kelly is worried the bills would make it harder for employers to hire and fire whomever they want. In practice, Joan Williams says the bills might make it easier to bring discrimination lawsuits. But she says that's only part of the point.

Ms. WILLIAMS: The important thing about these statutes really is not even whether they pass, in my humble opinion, but that they start a conversation that really gets the word out to employers that they need to get some good current advice.

ROSE: In Pennsylvania, the bills appear likely to die for the third term in a row. But activist Kiki Peppard says she'll push to have them reintroduced next year.

For NPR News, I'm Joel Rose.

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