Illinois Issues: One Woman's Story

Apr 28, 2016

Recently, Illinois Issues looked at the issue of whether the Pregnancy Fairness Law, which was enacted last year, has been effective. This is a story about a woman for whom the law came too late.

Holly Sanford says she was terrified when she was fired from her job a year and a half ago. She was about seven months pregnant with her second child and was the main breadwinner for her family at the time.

“It was just horrifying for our family for me to be unemployed at that particular time in our lives,” says Sanford, whose husband took a lower-paying job so she could take the managerial job at a Meatheads hamburger restaurant in Normal.

The Bloomington resident believes her pregnancy was what led to her termination, and she sued in March under the federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act.

Her attorney, Betty Tsamis, says Sanford’s case, which is still underway, would have been stronger had the firing happened not quite a month later, after Illinois’ Pregnancy Fairness Act took effect.

Tsamis says that had the relatively new Illinois law been in place, she would have advised her client to file under it rather than in federal court. Sanford’s December 2014 firing occurred when there was little difference between the federal and existing Illinois law. So Tsamis told Sanford to make her case at the federal level, a faster option than going the Illinois Department of Human Rights for the approval to sue.

“I think that at least we would have had a more clear cut violation on our hands if we had the same facts with the Pregnancy Fairness Act being effective,’’ she says. “The law requires that an employer, among other things, provide some sort of reasonable accommodation to a woman who is pregnant and is experiencing complications associated with pregnancy, which Ms. Sanford was indeed. She was asking for, at one point, a stool to sit on [and] for shorter work hours.”

Sanford says her employer was unwilling to make the accommodations. “Even when it was as simple as sitting down for a short time.” She says she had to buy her own stool because the restaurant’s back area lacked even a desk for a computer.

Sanford’s supervisor allegedly fired her because she violated a non-compete agreement with the company by once selling sandwiches at a farmers’ market. But that came after the supervisor had declined to provide a stool and asked questions about Sanford’s plans to breastfeed. Sanford believes her termination was motivated, in part, by her employer’s anticipation of Illinois Pregnancy Fairness Act taking effect.

The attorney for Meatheads, Scott Dolezal, did not respond to requests for comment about the suit.

Sanford now has a new position working at the Illinois State University food service, but she says it wasn’t easy getting that job.

“It was really difficult looking for a job, as you can imagine, me looking  great on paper and getting  good interviews, but once I would show up and people would see me and know I was about to have another baby. It’s funny how phone calls don’t really happen when they see you.”

Her son, Kiernan, with whom she was pregnant when she was fired, is now a year old. His sister, Rowan, is now 3 years old.

Tsamis says she hopes to get a resolution before the case filed in the Northern District of Illinois goes to trial. Among other things, Sanford is seeking back pay or reinstatement, compensatory damage and attorney fees. The first appearance in the case is schedule for May 9.

“She believes she was treated unlawfully, as I do, and I think it’s important to remind employers what the law requires.”