In the hours after the birth of her baby boy in September of 2014, Kashawna Holmes sat in her hospital bed scrolling through emails, telling friends everything had gone okay, when she found something terrifying in her inbox: A termination letter, saying she’d lost her job.
"I was completely devastated, in shock. I felt that was supposed to be the happiest time, I was so excited about having my son,” says Holmes, 29, who had worked since March 2013 as the coordinator of a senior companion care program at the University of the District of Columbia. "But to not know how to take care of him …” she trails off. "I literally lost it, I was so depressed and sad.”
Holmes had loved her job, a temporary position that had been renewed annually under a long-standing federal grant, and she was simultaneously studying for a degree in gerontology. When a doctor told her she’d have to go on bed rest because of complications nearly three months before her due date, she said she filed all the paperwork she’d need to take leave, knowing local and federal law entitled her to return to the same position.
When the job disappeared, she sought help from the nonprofit Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs. On Monday, Holmes filed a lawsuit in federal court over the termination. UDC declined to comment.
Holmes’s experience makes her one of the thousands of women every year to lose a job while on maternity leave. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission received 5,217 pregnancy-related complaints in 2014 nationwide (26 were in the District). While down from a peak of 6,285 in 2008, that's still a big increase from the late 1990s, and it prompted the agency to issue guidance earlier this year for employers in complying with all the various laws protecting pregnant women in the workplace — including the federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act, which has been in place since 1978.
The volume of complaints is in part a result of the rising number of women in physical, low-wage fields where pregnancy is regarded as incompatible with particular job descriptions, like waitressing and working in a warehouse. But jobs can also disappear for women like Holmes, who don’t necessarily need any accommodation in order to fulfill their responsibilities. And this has occurred even after the District passed strong protections for pregnant workers last year — and as lawmakers look at creating the most generous family leave law in the country, providing 16 weeks of paid time off for new parents.
Just ask Laura Brown, who is serving as co-counsel in Holmes’s case. In 2014, Brown left her job at an established worker advocacy group to start a new nonprofit called the First Shift Justice Project, focusing specifically on family issues.
“For employment issues generally, and particularly wage issues, smaller employers either tend to be less educated or feeling like they should operate under the radar," Brown says. “But I don’t feel that way about pregnancy discrimination. HR departments are generally uncomfortable dealing with it."
That’s why Brown tries to help pregnant women deal with tricky situations before they lose their jobs — if a woman is coming in for legal help after the fact, it’s probably going to be too late for anything but the damages she might win after a long battle in court. “Sometimes the process stops when an attorney gets involved. Everybody gets defensive, in a situation where a delay is a big problem,” Brown says.
In Holmes’s situation, she said there were warning signs.
The trouble started only a few weeks into her pregnancy, when her immediate supervisor motioned to Holmes’s belly in the middle of a staff meeting and asked, according to the complaint, “Is there something you need to tell me?” Holmes had experienced two miscarriages, and said the exchange made her surprised and uncomfortable.
The complaint alleges that Holmes’s supervisor, Elgloria Harrison, was judging her for having a child without being married. Holmes had been dating her boyfriend since college, but he was often away for months at a time, serving as a sailor in the U.S. Merchant Marines.
Harrison did not respond to requests for comment.
“Elgloria made a comment about how when she was getting ready to have kids, she could never have a roommate. She had a house and she was married and she was prepared for a child,” Holmes says, repeating a claim in the complaint. "All day long, I remember going back and forth, thinking, 'Why would she say that? What is she trying to say? Is she saying that I’m not prepared?’ ”
According to the complaint, Harrison also made other remarks that Holmes felt were invasive, like questioning her need to take a whole day for a doctor’s appointment. When Holmes told her it was because the pregnancy was considered high-risk, Harrison wanted to know why and encouraged her to go on leave early — which if true would be a violation of the law.
A few months before her due date, Holmes started having premature contractions at work, and her doctor ordered her onto bed rest. For the next week, she said she ran around tying up loose ends and getting all the right forms to the right people. Even though she wouldn’t be paid during that time, she said HR staff assured her the job would be waiting when she came back.
But after a few weeks, as she was whiling away her time at home, she said she stumbled across a listing for what looked exactly like her job — and it wasn’t marked as temporary, either. "I felt my blood pressure rising, and rage almost,” Holmes remembers. “This man told me if I did my paperwork, everything was going to be okay,” she says, speaking of the HR officer at UDC. Holmes called to try to figure out what was going on, but nobody had any answers, according to the complaint.
Under that kind of stress, a few weeks later, her doctor decided to induce an early birth. The termination notice that followed was sent by Harrison herself, the complaint said. When Holmes asked how it was possible that her job had been taken away, she said she was told it was a one-year appointment that had ended on Sept. 30. But Holmes said the appointment's expiration date had not been a problem the previous year, and Holmes knew the funding had been extended, since she prepared the audit herself.
Without a job, the new family shifted into survival mode. Holmes said her boyfriend, who had exhausted his own leave after coming home to help care for her, had to resign from his well-paid job and started applying for temp positions. Holmes got unemployment insurance, but it wasn’t enough; they had to apply for food stamps and go on Medicaid as well.
The worst part, from Holmes’s perspective, was being thrown off a career track after feeling like she’d done everything right. She said she had to drop out of gerontology school with one year to go, and she says she still has $100,000 in debt. She applied for jobs continuously after having her baby, but it took her until the next spring to secure one that would pay enough to be worth the cost of child care — a part-time support assistant job at the National Institutes of Health.
“I was used to making a decent amount of money, living on my own, and I went from that to nothing, literally,” Holmes says. “I just really want them to know to think twice, maybe three times, before they do this to someone else.”