MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From nurses now to those of us who have to act like nurses, taking care of children or elderly parents. A rising number of caregivers say their employers treat them unfairly.

As NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports, the number of workplace discrimination lawsuits filed by caregivers has quadrupled in the past decade.

JENNIFER LUDDEN: There's actually no federal law that bans what's called caregiver discrimination, but for years, employment lawyers have been hearing complaints like this:

Ms. DAWN GALLINA (Attorney): He just dropped by my office and talked to me about nothing relevant and ended his conversation by telling me that pregnant women don't make partner in his firm.

LUDDEN: That's Dawn Gallina, who, a decade ago, was a fifth-year associate at a law firm based in the suburbs of Northern Virginia. Today, she sits at a backyard picnic table as her son flips through a "Star Wars" magazine.

Unidentified Child: Stormtrooper.

Ms. GALLINA: Stormtrooper, that's good. Who are the good guys?

LUDDEN: Gallina says things at the law firm started to go badly when her husband dropped by one day with their baby daughter. It seemed to rattle her boss, a managing partner.

Ms. GALLINA: He came and asked me, and said, you didn't tell me you had a child.

LUDDEN: Gallina says he suggested that would have been a good thing to mention during her job interview. After that, she says she was asked to come in weekends only to find no work to do, and badgered about face time, even though, as she told another superior, she was in the office from nine until seven most days and often held evening conference calls after putting her daughter to bed.

Ms. GALLINA: I explained that to him, and he said, well, you need to decide whether you want to be a mommy or a lawyer.

LUDDEN: Gallina says she complained repeatedly to the firm's human resources department to no avail. Eventually, she was denied a raise, then fired. So Gallina sued the firm.

Cynthia Calvert of the Center for WorkLife Law says the case is part of a growing legal trend driven by a changing workforce.

Ms. CYNTHIA CALVERT (Center for WorkLife Law): We have more mothers in the workforce now because more people have elderly parents that they need to care for, and we have more fathers actively involved in their children's lives.

LUDDEN: the lack of a federal law specifically protecting such caregivers became an issue at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Stuart Ishimaru is a commissioner there.

Mr. STUART ISHIMARU (Commissioner, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission): Quite often, people would show up, and they say, I was excluded because of my caregiving responsibilities. And it would be too easy for our people to say, well, we don't cover that.

LUDDEN: So a few years ago, the EEOC told its offices to see how current laws could address these problems. Often, suits can be brought as gender or disability discrimination or violations of the Family Medical Leave Act, or in Dawn Gallina's case, unlawful retaliation after she complained about her boss's comments.

In 2007, the EEOC also issued guidance to help employers avoid such lawsuits. Commissioner Ishimaru admits it can be tricky. A boss may even think she's being benevolent by offering a new mom fewer responsibilities and less travel. But that can get you in trouble.

Mr. ISHIMARU: You need to ask. You say these are the choices you can have, not assuming for the person what they may choose, but making sure that people are treated and given the same choices no matter what their gender.

LUDDEN: Most caregiver discrimination suits involve women and pregnancy, but Cynthia Calvert says 12 percent are filed by men.

Ms. CALVERT: Such as a father who wants to take paternity leave and is denied the leave because the employer feels that taking care of a newborn is women's work.

LUDDEN: In recent years, dozens of localities have created laws banning discrimination against parents or those with family responsibilities. A handful of states have considered the same.

In Virginia, Dawn Gallina's law firm, Mintz Levin, fought her lawsuit, insisting she'd been fired for poor performance. Sue Finegan is a partner at the firm.

Ms. SUE FINEGAN (Attorney; Partner, Mintz Levin): I had my maternity leave, my first maternity leave in '97, so a year-and-a-half before I made partner. And then in 2000 I had another maternity leave, and that was my eight-month maternity leave.

LUDDEN: And Finegan says she did that working part-time some years. Mintz Levin has also received numerous awards for its family-friendly benefits.

Ultimately, though, a federal appeals court sided with Gallina. It awarded her half-a-million dollars and the prospect of more in punitive damages.

Ms. GALLINA: A light bulb must have gone off because suddenly they were in a mood to settle.

LUDDEN: These days, Gallina says, she's happily employed at a different company that values her family life.

Jennifer Ludden, NPR News.

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