America still must deal with family responsibility discrimination, according to University of California researchers. (Photo: iStock)

It’s been many years since it was legal to fire a woman for being pregnant, but according to new data, many employers still haven’t received the memo.

A new study found that in the past decade, the number of workers filing complaints alleging discrimination at work based on their caregiving responsibilities has risen 269 percent. The dramatic rise in family responsibility discrimination cases coincides with a 13 percent decrease in general employment discrimination claims.

Cases involving pregnancy accommodation rose 315 percent, while claims involving care of elders rose 650 percent. 

Researchers at the University of California Hastings College of Law also found that employees prevailed, either through a settlement or a trial, in more than half (52 percent) of the 4,400 family responsibility discrimination claims. Of the cases that went to trial, two-thirds ended with a verdict in favor of the employee.

Related: New York passes family leave mandate

While the great majority of claims are brought by women, male plaintiffs are increasingly common. Men account for only 28 percent of childcare claims but 38 percent of elder care cases and 55 percent of spousal care cases.

During the timeframe examined by the study, employers paid nearly half a billion dollars in settlements or judgments in family responsibility discrimination cases.

If that doesn’t look like a big figure in the grand scheme of the U.S. economy, the study authors are quick to note that there are plenty of other ramifications for employers.

“Putting lawsuits aside, (family responsibility discrimination) causes companies to lose good employees, damages morale and productivity, weakens relationships with customers, and tarnishes reputations,” says the report.

Allegations of discrimination spring from a variety of actions demonstrated by employers and supervisors. Firing or disciplining an employee based on a family obligation or excluding a worker from an opportunity at a promotion are classic actions that can spark lawsuits. But so are less concrete acts, including excluding an employee from certain functions or meetings.

Related: San Francisco now requires fully paid parental leave

The report notes that discrimination is often the result of conflicting expectations about work-life balance. The expectations on the part of the employer are often shaped by antiquated gender biases or traditional views of gender roles. Common assumptions are that fathers require less time to take care of kids than women or that women will lose interest in their job as soon as they have kids.

Employers who want to avoid discrimination cases should train their supervisors on the law and specify family responsibility rights in a company anti-discrimination policy. The report further suggests that giving oversight of personnel decisions that involve caregiving employees to the HR department, which is more likely to be sensitive to legal nuances, can also help “nip problems in the bud.” 

Related: Obama administration issues new health care discrimination rule