TORONTO - There's a disturbing new trend of layoffs targeting pregnant women, new mothers and disabled workers as the economy tumbles further into a recession, human rights advocates said Wednesday.
Ontario's Human Rights Legal Support Centre is receiving 10 to 15 calls a week from women who have either lost their jobs or fear their employer will fire them because they're pregnant or on maternity leave, said executive director Katherine Laird.
The complaints - which account for about 10 per cent of all employment-related inquiries - ramped up significantly in January when the economy really started to tank, she said.
"Sometimes employers are very direct about it," Laird said.
"There was one case where the employee told her employer (she was pregnant) in the morning and was let go in the afternoon."
Others employers are cutting shifts or refusing requests for time off to attend doctor's appointments to provoke women into quitting their jobs, she said.
The complaints span all sectors and salaries, from senior business professionals to minimum-wage workers, Laird said.
"What we're finding is that some employers seem to be targeting pregnant employees and sometimes also employees who have made workers comp claims or who are otherwise disabled," she said.
"So if they have to layoff a group of workers, sometimes there's a pattern."
Less than two weeks before her maternity leave ended, Vera Trevisanello, 36, said her employer told her not to come back.
She thought she was returning to a promotion and a higher salary after having her son, Noah, a year ago.
But her employer, a Toronto financial services company, told her the position was eliminated in a restructuring, and changed the subject when she pointed out that other employees were still doing the same work, she said.
"You feel very degraded, you feel helpless, and I'm not really understanding why this happened to me," Trevisanello said.
"I am still the same skilled, intelligent person I was before. And I'm being made to feel like I'm supposed to regret my son, and I certainly do not."
She complained to the labour board, but was told to be patient because they were dealing with an "extreme" backlog of maternity-related cases, she said.
The Ontario government must do more to investigate these claims and determine whether there's a pattern of discrimination across the province, said the New Democrats.
"Women should not be punished or fired for having children - that's the bottom line," said NDP Leader Andrea Horwath.
Ontario's Labour Ministry should also conduct more annual workplace inspections and move more quickly to resolve these complaints, the party said.
McGuinty acknowledged that his government could put more resources into probing the complaints, but stopped short of making any promises.
"Let me just say this to Ontario employers: it's against the law to fire a woman because she's pregnant, because she's expecting a child," he said Wednesday. "And we will do everything we can to enforce those laws."
Ontario's employment standards officers have been told that pregnancy-related labour complaints must go to the "top of the list," said Labour Minister Peter Fonseca.
Employers who break the law will be prosecuted and could face stiff penalties or even jail time, he added.
Laird said the centre - an independent agency funded by the province - is trying to resolve these cases quickly so that the women are able to access their Employment Insurance benefits.
EI claims in Ontario jumped 67 per cent over the last year, according to new data released Wednesday by the government.