Federal Judge Rejects Right to Work-Life Balance

Adding fuel to the debate about the extent to which companies must accommodate parents in the workplace, a Federal judge in New York recently dismissed a class-action sexual discrimination lawsuit against Bloomberg, L.P., the financial and media services company founded by New York Mayor, Michael Bloomberg. While the judge ruled that some individual sex discrimination claims could continue, she asserted that the law does not generally protect "work-life" balance.

In the class action, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleged that Bloomberg L.P. had engaged in a pattern of discrimination against new mothers and pregnant women. Originally filed in 1997, the lawsuit claimed that the company regularly discriminated against mothers and pregnant women returning from maternity leave by reducing their pay, demoting them or excluding them from important meetings.

While explaining her decision to dismiss the class-action, Judge Lorretta Preska insisted that "even if there were several isolated instances of individual discrimination," there was insufficient evidence to prove that discrimination was Bloomberg L.P.'s "standard operating procedure." Judge Preska noted that the company "did not reduce the responsibilities of women returning from maternity leave any more than those of those who took similarly lengthy leaves."

The court's ruling contained a lengthy discussion of work-life issues that the case raised. Judge Preska noted that, the law does not "mandate work-life balance" nor require companies to "stop valuing ultimate dedication, however unhealthy that may be for family life." Quoting Jack Welch, the former chairman of General Electric, Judge Preska wrote, "There's no such thing as work-life balance. There are work-life choices, and you make them, and they have consequences."

Effects of the Ruling

Though some individual discrimination claims are going forward, the ways in which the broad strokes of the ruling will practically affect corporations and individuals will be played out in time. Should corporations take this ruling as a cue to eliminate pro-work-life balance policies, the impacts will be felt by parents and non-parents alike. Jennifer Owens, the editorial director of Working Mother magazine, phrased the potential reality this way: "It's not just mom but working dads. It's people who want to run a marathon, people with eldercare. It's everybody."

Given the complex nature of the ways in which the law defines discrimination in the workplace, any employee concerned about the ways in which their work-life balance is being impacted by employee policy should consult an experienced employment law attorney. An attorney can examine each employee's unique circumstances and help to determine whether an employer's anti-work-life policies or behavior may be considered discrimination or not.