The presidential hopefuls are courting America’s working moms: They’re talking paid family leave, equal pay, affordable childcare—“common sense” provisions for “work-life balance” that, compared with the rest of the industrialized world, are shamefully overdue for the United States. If only corporate managers were so eager to please. The reality for working women looks less like a campaign ad and more like the legal complaints filed by two Pennsylvania workers last month against the country’s most powerful boss: Walmart.
The first, Victoria Eyler, sued Walmart in a Pennsylvania District Court claiming that the company had violated the federal Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) by denying her time off to care for her ailing mother, who was suffering from renal failure and coronary heart disease. She had sought unpaid leave, which the FMLA is designed to guarantee for roughly 60 percent of the workforce, to tend to her mother’s needs from fall of 2014 through March 2015. Although the store initially allowed her to take time off, according to the suit, she was pressured to return to work within a few weeks, and was eventually terminated by December.
The other, Rebecca Wolfinger of Shippensburg, claimed Walmart unfairly fired her in 2012 after a dispute over an arduous seven-day work schedule, and retaliated against her by charging her with misconduct involving a side job unrelated to Walmart.
According to Wolfinger, just two weeks before her dismissal, the store manager “required that Ms. Wolfinger work seven days a week, stating to her…that she needs to choose between her career and her kids.” Wolfinger noted that her male peers were not faced with a similar “ultimatum.”
The seven-day schedule imposed on Wolfinger was perhaps a catalyst for other workplace conflicts percolating below the surface. According to the lawsuit, however, Walmart claimed she was terminated over her alleged “refusal to cooperate in an investigation related to the sales of Pampered Chef”—a direct-marketing program she and some coworkers did as a side job. But Wolfinger says the Pampered Chef crackdown was just a vehicle for retaliation, and her friction with management was colored by longstanding tensions surrounding her struggle with “depression, anxiety and panic attacks.” Years earlier Wolfinger clashed with the store manager when he cited her mental-health condition in a performance evaluation, describing them, in condescendingly gendered terms, as “composure issues” and being “weak” at work and not able to control her “emotional issues.”
The subsurface tensions returned to haunt Wolfinger five years later, when she was called into a meeting in February 2012, in which the store manager and HR manager questioned her Pampered Chef activity. According to Wolfinger, the meeting triggered “hyperventilation, racing heart rate, and other symptoms of anxiety and panic attack,” prompting her to “[take] her prescription Xanax in front of her higher ups.” In a follow-up e-mail correspondence with the HR manager, she “referenced her anti-depressant medications.” She was advised that the store manager “would address her questions in a meeting the following day.” Within a few days, she was fired. The management could have engaged Wolfinger proactively, she claims—the suit argues she was entitled to “reasonable accommodations” such as providing a break or rescheduling the meeting. The seemingly arbitrary firing, Wolfinger argues, violated Americans with Disabilities Act protections.