Pregnant Chipotle Worker Awarded $550k in Discrimination Lawsuit

Former employee claimed her manager harassed her after learning she was pregnant

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A jury has awarded a Chipotle Mexican Grill worker over half a million dollars on her claim that she was fired because she was pregnant (Garcia Hernandez v. Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc., D.D.C., No. 1:14-cv-00297). 

Doris Garcia Hernandez—a former employee at a Washington, D.C., Chipotle restaurant—said she received positive feedback about her performance before she announced that she was pregnant.

After that, she alleged, the supervisor harassed her and ultimately fired her because of her pregnancy in violation of federal anti-discrimination laws and the District of Columbia Human Rights Act (DCHRA).

On Aug. 4, the jury found in favor of Garcia Hernandez and awarded her $50,000 in compensatory damages and another $500,000 in punitive damages. Punitive damages are generally imposed on a defendant as a punishment for willful or reckless violations and as a deterrent from engaging in the unlawful conduct again.

Disparate Policies

Chipotle operates a chain of fast-casual restaurants that offer tacos and burritos, which are assembled by employees on a food-service line.

Workers on these lines are often on their feet for long periods, said Christine Tschiderer, an attorney with the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, who represented Garcia Hernandez in this case.

Garcia Hernandez claimed that after learning of her pregnancy, her supervisor made her announce to co-workers whenever she needed a bathroom break so that someone could cover her work on the line. This requirement wasn't imposed on nonpregnant employees, according to her complaint.

Furthermore, she said her supervisor yelled at her for taking a long time in the bathroom, denied her access to drinking water during her 4-hour shifts and denied her request to leave early for a prenatal appointment.

Garcia Hernandez was allegedly fired in a public area of the restaurant in front of customers and employees for "not giving 100 percent" to Chipotle. She claimed, however, that she was actually fired because of her pregnancy.

Pregnancy Protections

The federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act amended Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to explicitly make it unlawful for employers with 15 or more employees to discriminate against workers based on pregnancy, childbirth or other related conditions. 

The DCHRA also provides employment protection to pregnant women and extends its coverage to all private-sector employers regardless of size.

Under these laws, employers are required to be reasonable and treat pregnant employees the same as other workers, Tschiderer said. But the extent to which employers are required to make an accommodation is tricky and may depend on state law.

Garcia Hernandez's case motivated a Washington, D.C., city council member to push for the district's Protecting Pregnant Workers Fairness Act of 2014, according to Tschiderer. This new law requires employers to provide certain reasonable accommodations to pregnant women in the workplace. 

Under the act, employers in the district must engage in "a timely and interactive process with an employee requesting or otherwise needing a reasonable accommodation to determine a reasonable accommodation for that employee."

The act provides specific examples of reasonable accommodations for pregnant or breast-feeding workers, including more frequent or longer breaks, time off to recover from childbirth, temporary transfers, and light duty.

If this law had been in place at the time Garcia Hernandez was employed by Chipotle, she would have had a stand-alone "failure to accommodate" claim in addition to her pregnancy discrimination claim, Tschiderer said. The new law shifts the burden to the employer to show that providing a reasonable accommodation would have caused it an undue hardship.  

Tschiderer said she hopes this case shines a spotlight on the issues affecting pregnant women in retail or food-service jobs.

"Employees in these positions are often on their feet at all times and don't have control over when they take breaks," she said. 

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