Californian woman says she was fired because her children disrupted her work calls

Drisana Rios filed a lawsuit against Hub International, alleging gender discrimination, retaliation and wrongful termination. PHOTO: MODERNCALIMOM/INSTAGRAM

CALIFORNIA (NYTIMES) - A California woman has sued her former employer, saying that she was fired because her young children were making noise during business calls while she was working from home because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The woman, Drisana Rios of San Diego, filed the lawsuit last month against Hub International, a global insurance brokerage firm, alleging gender discrimination, retaliation and wrongful termination.

Rios, 35, said she had "worked harder than I ever have in my entire career" since she transitioned to remote work in March. She said that in addition to doing her job from home, she had to juggle her responsibilities as a caregiver to her four-year-old daughter and one-year-old son.

"I continued my normal duties as an account executive but now added two young children to the mix," Rios said in a statement through her lawyer.

"It was extremely difficult, but I managed to meet all the deadlines. There was some days where I had to work late to meet rush deadlines or any duties I couldn't finish during the day because I had to care for both of my young kids at the same time."

Rios had worked full time as an account executive for Hub International since August 2019. She began working from home in March when Governor Gavin Newsom ordered Californians to stay at home to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

The complaint, filed in Superior Court in San Diego County, outlines several attempts that Rios said she made to assuage her supervisor's concerns over her ability to meet her work obligations while caring for her children.

In the complaint, Rios said her supervisor assigned her several tasks with short turnaround times, even though the tasks were not urgent. She said she told her supervisor that afternoon calls worked best for her because that was when her youngest child napped.

The complaint says her supervisor "continued scheduling calls during lunch times, when Plaintiff was feeding her children, nursing or putting her child down for a nap."

Rios said those calls led to a reprimand from her supervisor. "He said, 'The kids could be heard on business calls with clients. It's unprofessional,' " she told ABC's Good Morning America.

In her lawsuit, Rios said she told him that she could not promise that there would be no background noise "100 per cent of the time".

According to the complaint, he told her "to take care of your kid situation". Rios also endured "sexist statements" from her supervisor, who was "motivated by a clear bias against mothers", the complaint says.

She was eventually told to address her "time-management issues" with another supervisor. According to the complaint, the supervisor accused her of being "defensive" and said he was "tired of accommodating" her. After detailing her treatment multiple times to human resources, Rios said she was let go on June 2, with the company citing the pandemic's negative effect on its revenue as the reason.

She is seeking unspecified monetary damages from Hub International, including back pay and compensation for mental and emotional distress.

In a statement, a spokesman for Hub International declined to comment on the case.

"While we can't comment on pending litigation, Hub is proud to have successfully transitioned 90 per cent of its 12,000-plus employees to working remotely from home throughout the Covid-19 pandemic," the spokesman said.

Rios' former supervisor, Daniel Kabban, is also listed as a defendant. He could not be reached for comment.

Experts said Rios' predicament reflected the challenges that many working mothers face as the coronavirus pandemic forced schools to close and halted many summer activities for children.

Caitlyn Collins, a sociology professor at Washington University in St Louis whose research focuses on gender inequality in the workplace and family life, said working mothers often shouldered more of the caregiving burden than their male counterparts. The coronavirus has not improved that imbalance, she said.

"A woman pulling a baby into her lap during a conference meeting on a virtual call is very different than a man doing it," Collins said. "And it's different for a woman of colour than it is for a white woman. So I think we have to think again about the broader context in which this woman's termination played out."

Joan Williams, a law professor at the University of California's Hastings College of Law in San Francisco, said the pandemic could lead to a number of cases similar to Rios'.

"We expect an explosion of cases involving family responsibilities, discrimination and specifically discrimination against mothers," said Williams, who is also founding director of the Centre of WorkLife Law, an advocacy organisation based at the Hastings College of Law. The centre has been operating a helpline for caregivers affected by Covid-19.

In two-parent households, about 44 per cent of women said they alone provided childcare in their household in early April, compared with 14 per cent of men, according to a study on gender differences during the coronavirus outbreak by the Dornsife Centre For Economic and Social Research at the University of Southern California.

Gema Zamarro, an author of the study and an adjunct senior economist at the Dornsife Center, said the pandemic could lead to major consequences for women in the labour market.

"Generally I worry there might be a point that women might not be able carry all this load and they start leaving the labour force, and that would represent a step back in terms of gender equality," Zamarro said.

Rios' lawyer, Daphne Delvaux, said Rios had hired a nanny to help her balance her work and childcare responsibilities. The nanny had signed on to help three days a week from 7am to 11am. However, "by the time the nanny started, Ms Rios was already in the bad graces of her employer, as she had reported discrimination to HR", Delvaux said in a statement.

Before being relegated to working from home, Rios described working with Kabban as "high-energy, intense and stressful". "During the job interview, Kabban even asked me if me having two young kids would prevent me from doing the job," Rios said. "Even then, it was clear to me that he was concerned about me being a mother."

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