(CN) – Labor justice advocates representing dock works along the West Coast filed a discrimination complaint Thursday with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, alleging workers have been systematically denied access to promotions due to gender-based discrimination by employers.
Female longshore workers in ports across the West Coast said those who miss time due to on-the-job injuries or military service are awarded access to promotions, higher wages and union membership, but women absent due to pregnancy and maternity leave are not.
“As a casual longshore worker, the prospect of falling so far behind my coworkers in the long road toward joining the union, just because I had a baby, is heartbreaking,” said Tracy Plummer, whose treatment at Los Angeles and Long Beach ports is outlined in the charges filed with the federal agency.
The American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU Foundation of Southern California, the law firm of Outten & Golden LLP, and Los Angeles attorney Brenda Feigen represent the workers.
The parties named in the complaint are the Pacific Maritime Association, which represents West Coast shipping and terminal companies, and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union which represents dock workers along the West Coast.
In 1983, the PMA and ILWU settled a lawsuit by 500 female longshore workers alleging systematic exclusion from union membership. At the time, just seven women were ILWU members. The settlement resulted in a consent decree known as the “Golden Decree” which resulted in as many as 1,000 women joining the ILWU, according to the ACLU.
The PMA represents close to 80 shipping and terminal companies that use and operate the 29 ports along the West Coast, from San Diego, California to Bellingham, Washington.
The women whose individual stories are outlined in the charges represent a group of thousands of non-union dockworkers known as “casuals,” the lowest rung on the port employment hierarchy, according to the ACLU.
So-called casual workers, which number around 5000, can only receive higher wages and access to union membership by accumulating thousands of work hours, according to the ACLU statement.
Under their work contract, casuals do not know from day to day if they will work a shift, let alone a full week of shifts. According to documents filed with the complaint, the contract contains no provisions for work hour credits due to maternity leave or related medical procedures, nor does it provide any protocol for workers to request accommodation due to pregnancy.
Workers say work hour credit policies are designed to hinder them. When a female casual is ready to return to work after recovering from childbirth but is still breastfeeding, she is denied access to a sanitary, private space in which to pump breast milk during her shift, the complaint said.
Casual workers can wait up to a decade for the ILWU to open its ranks to new members. Union membership can mean job security for workers and benefits like a pension and medical coverage.
Dock worker advocates argue pregnant women and new mothers who cannot work lose hundreds of hours and fall behind their peers, jeopardizing their opportunity to climb to higher wage levels which can range from $31 an hour and up, according to the statement.
“Pregnancy is a predictable medical event for the vast majority of working women,” said Melissa Goodman of ACLU Southern California.
“The industry and union leaders refuse to treat pregnant ‘casuals’ the same way they treat others who are temporarily unable to work in the dangerous conditions on the docks,” she said.
The refusal by employers, and by extension, port officials, to extend the same work hour accrual policy to workers absent due to pregnancy and childbirth as other absent workers is a violation of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, the workers’ legal advocates said.
“The Pregnancy Discrimination Act requires employers and unions to give pregnant workers the same opportunities as those provided to non-pregnant employees,” said David Lopez, an attorney supporting dock workers.
Longshore work is extremely dangerous for everyone, but especially for pregnant and breastfeeding workers, the ACLU said. The Port of Los Angeles is the largest source of air pollution in Southern California, due in large part to the reliance on diesel fuel for trucks and other cargo equipment on the docks.
Shipping containers weighing several tons can be accidentally dropped by cranes, or can leak, spilling hazardous materials, the complaint said.
“These charges are a necessary first step to ensure PMA and ILWU’s policy complies with the law,” said Lopez, a former general counsel of the EEOC.
The amended complaint is tied to a class-action lawsuit challenging “unequal policies allowing workers who are absent to accrue the work hours necessary for” access to both higher wages and union membership, according to a statement from the ACLU.
The class includes workers in 29 ports from north of Seattle down to San Diego.
The Port of Los Angeles in Long Beach, also called America’s Port, is the largest of the West Coast Ports, employing close to 14,000 individuals.