For five years, Susana Macías scrubbed toilets and mopped floors as a janitor and supervisor working for a subcontractor to IKEA in Emeryville. When she got pregnant in 2009, she said her supervisors promised her she'd have a job to return to. But when she tried to return to work just weeks after her son was born, Macías said she learned there was no job for her. "They fired me because I had a baby," Macías said last week at a press conference, in her native Spanish. "They made me feel as if having a baby was a crime."
Last Thursday, the Legal Aid Society-Employment Law Center filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of Macías against the Pleasanton-based Excel Building Services, a company that subcontracts work to national chains such as IKEA and Target. They say Macías was discriminated against based on her pregnancy and gender, violating state and federal laws that guarantee rights for pregnant women.
In addition to wages lost for being fired, the lawsuit claims that Excel owes Macías overtime because she sometimes worked as many as twelve hours a day. According to the suit, the company also violated other labor and civil rights laws and failed to make accommodations for her pregnancy.
Janitorial work is particularly grueling, and much time is spent stooped, lifting heavy trash, and using potentially dangerous chemicals — conditions that might adversely affect a pregnant employee's health. And yet Macías said her supervisor refused to make even those accommodations recommended by a doctor.
After giving birth in February 2010, Macías said she was fired during a March meeting with her supervisor, Excel's HR manager, and its president. The lawsuit alleges that HR manager Feliza Guerrero told Macías something along the lines of, "women do not work as well after having a baby." President Jack Fabrique said he could not comment on a personnel matter but that "the company is in compliance with all state and federal guidelines."
Attorney Lori Rifkin of the Employment Law Center said such conditions are widespread within the janitorial industry. She said she believes there's "industry-wide abuse" against women in this field. Colleague Silas Shawver said the law firm is working on two other cases in which Spanish-speaking janitors were fired for pregnancy-related reasons at a Bay Area company. Shawver said workers such as Macías — often immigrants who do not speak English — are particularly vulnerable to abuse and typically do not have access to a lawyer.
Macías said the ordeal left her and her family emotionally and financially distraught, as she was the main income earner in the family. "What they did to me, they will do to others," she said.