What's especially stunning, they say, is how brazen some bosses are, almost 50 years after Ontario enacted the Human Rights Code to prevent such discrimination.
"We actually have an email from one employer saying, `Sorry, but with your little bundle, I don't think we'll be able to (re)hire you. We want a permanent solution,'" says Consuelo Rubio, manager of client services for Ontario's Human Rights Legal Support Centre, an independent agency funded by the province to provide free legal services to people experiencing discrimination.
The firings are in all sectors: "It's happening to women in senior positions and women in minimum-wage jobs," says Katherine Laird, executive director of the centre, who says she hasn't seen this level of discrimination through two previous recessions and 30 years in the human rights field.
"It's outrageous and illegal," Laird says.
The spike in calls from pregnant women who are frightened for their jobs, can't nail down return-to-work dates or have been told there will be no job waiting for them at the end of their maternity leave, started last fall. But they hit "nightmare" levels in January, says Rubio, and are now averaging 10 to 15 calls a week – accounting for about 10 per cent of all calls from workers inquiring about their rights.
"I thought I was the only person this was happening to," says Brandi Mather, 21, a housekeeper at an Orillia hotel who was laid off Jan. 19, ostensibly because of a lack of work. She later learned her boss had overhead co-workers talking about her pregnancy. Mather had hoped to return to work this month, but found out a replacement worker had been hired in the meantime.
Her boss was quite upfront, saying it was because of the pregnancy. But the boss backtracked when she realized Mather had checked out her legal rights and then said it was because her work was shoddy.
Most firings seem to occur soon after women announce they are pregnant, says Rubio. That puts women's maternity leave benefits at risk, since to qualify for full benefits they must work 600 hours within the 52 weeks before filing.
"I need 435 more hours," says Mather, who also has a 2-year-old daughter and had been working part-time while studying to be a pharmacy assistant. Her pregnancy is starting to show, which has made it impossible to get another job.
"I don't want to go on welfare, but if that's what I have to do, that's what I have to do. I've tried really hard not to do that because I know there are other people who need it."
Until Dec. 4, dental assistant Ann Dunn split her work week between two dentists, one in Courtice and one in Bowmanville. At 10 a.m. she told the Bowmanville dentist she was pregnant. A few hours later she was given a $300 gift certificate to The Bay and told her one-day-a-week job was over.
To her gratitude, the other dentist was so shocked by the move he took her on staff early enough before her son, Michael, was born April 1 to allow her to qualify for maternity benefits. She's filed a claim with the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal and is seeking $10,000 in damages.
"If he had said to me, `Things are getting slow in the office and we don't have a lot of hours. Just finish off your three months,' I would have said, `That's fine.' But I didn't have that option. The only option I had was the gift card."
The dentist hired a replacement.
The centre is also hearing from pregnant women who work on commission but simply aren't being given any work or sales calls to make.
"Employers are crying about the recession and saying, `This is so terrible for us,'" says Rubio. "Well, what about all these workers who are going through the financial crisis too? The recession is not only affecting employers, it's affecting mothers with children, it's affecting disabled people – even more so because a lot of these people can be even more vulnerable financially."
The centre is also fielding more calls from injured workers and disabled people – who have always accounted for the vast majority of inquiries – and are seeing troubling signs on that front as well, especially among people who work for hard-hit auto-parts manufacturers, some of them unionized shops.
Human-rights advocates are investigating a Peterborough firm that produces car bumpers and other plastic parts. It laid off 18 workers back in January – every one of whom had at some point claimed disability benefits or were on modified work assignments to allow them to do less strenuous work to cope with their injury.
Meanwhile, 18 "healthy" workers were called back from layoffs.
"The Human Rights Code is supposed to be about recognizing the worth and dignity of every person – and sometimes the real test of an employer's commitment comes when economic times are tough," says Kate Sellar, a lawyer with the centre.
"Bad economic times aren't a licence for employers to discriminate against pregnant women and workers with disabilities."