Featured Working Parent

10 Questions: Liz Morris of The Center for WorkLife Law

November 15, 2017
interview liz morris

Liz Morris is the Deputy Director of The Center for WorkLife Law at UC Hastings College of Law. I recently had the privilege of interviewing Ms. Morris about her work for The Center and The Center’s many initiatives for workplace equality. I am pleased to share this interview on the blog today. 

liz morris interview

1. For those who are unfamiliar, what is the Center for WorkLifeLaw? 

Formally: The Center for WorkLife Law is a research and advocacy organization housed at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law. We seek to advance gender and racial equality in the workplace and in higher education by focusing on initiatives that can produce concrete social, legal, and institutional change within three to five years.

Informally: WorkLife Law is a group of badass, driven advocates and scholars working together to make things right in this world. We wouldn’t accomplish half of what we do without the camaraderie of our engaged team. I consider myself lucky to be a part of this incredible organization.

2. What is your role at the Center for WorkLifeLaw?

I’m the deputy director of the Center and an adjunct law professor at Hastings.

3. Can you describe what your responsibilities are and what a typical day looks like for you?

I definitely do not have a typical day, which is one of the things I love about my work. One of the highlights of my day is collaborating with my colleagues at WorkLife Law and our partner organizations, looking for creative ways to tackle gender inequality. I spend time at my desk researching and writing for a range of audiences, and time out in the field giving presentations about our work. I focus largely on tackling family responsibilities discrimination, which is employment discrimination against caregivers like pregnant and breastfeeding workers, new dads on family leave, adult children taking care of aging parents, and anyone else who cares for a family member. Our strategies include, for example, educating people on what the law requires and creating practical tools that support caregivers to secure their legal rights at work, conducting research to identify problems caregivers face in the workplace and potential solutions, and developing novel legal theories and filing briefs in court to advance the law to be more protective of caregivers at work. I also co-teach Advanced Employment Law at Hastings, incorporating the Center’s work into lessons on how to use the law as a tool for social change.  And I manage day-to-day operations at the Center, like our budget.

Actually, my workweek has changed in the last couple months after coming back from maternity leave. I now spend every Wednesday taking care of my son (my husband takes Fridays). We definitely practice what we preach here at the Center!

4. What recent initiatives has the Center taken on?

We take pride at the Center in how much we’re able to accomplish with a relatively small staff size. Our current major initiatives include programs for advancing women leaders, eliminating barriers for pregnant and breastfeeding workers and students, preventing Family Responsibilities Discrimination, and helping companies prevent or interrupt bias in the workplace and create more stable schedules for hourly workers. Reports and practical tools for these projects can be found on our website.

5. One of the Center’s major projects is “Pregnant at Work.” Can you tell readers a little bit about the goal of this project, and what it does?

PregnantAtWork.org is a website created with the goal of ensuring pregnant employees are able to continue working and earning an income while maintaining a healthy pregnancy. The website is a repository for all of our informational resources, practical tools, videos, and more aimed at pregnant women, their health care providers, their attorneys, and their employers.

The website is full of pragmatic tips for navigating what can often be a challenging time in women’s lives. All of the guidance on our site takes into account existing legal protections for pregnant women. For example, along with our partner A Better Balance, we created a document called Talking To Your Boss About Your Bump that helps you figure out how to talk to your employer about pregnancy and explains your workplace rights during pregnancy, depending on the state where you live. It’s particularly useful if you need a work accommodation–or a change to where, when, or how your job is done that will allow you to maintain a healthy pregnancy while continuing to work.

Since launching the website a few years ago, WorkLife Law started the Nursing Mothers Law Project, which has the goal of increasing protections and education about the legal rights and practical needs of nursing mothers at work. PregnantAtWork.org now has tools for breastfeeding employees, and their healthcare providers, lawyers, and employers too.

6. What, in your opinion, are some of the biggest obstacles pregnant women face at work?

Pregnant women often face bias at work–or assumptions about how they will behave, or how they should behave, now that they’re pregnant.  Managers may assume pregnant women are not as committed to their jobs as they used to be, or that they shouldn’t be performing their normal duties because it would be unsafe (even when the employee disagrees and wants to keep working). As a result, pregnant women may face what we legally refer to as discrimination, or negative treatment at work (like firing, demotion, harassment, etc.) because they’re pregnant. We often see requests for accommodation as a flashpoint for illegal discrimination. Pregnant women may be fired or put on unpaid leave for asking for accommodations as minor as additional bathroom breaks, permission to carry a water bottle to stay hydrated, or being excused from heavy lifting. This is very often against the law (depending on the circumstances and state), so our goal is to spread the word to pregnant women that they have legal rights, and to employers that they are exposing themselves to costly lawsuits when deny needed accommodations.

Nursing mothers similarly often need accommodations at work–like break time and a private, clean space to pump breast milk. No less than 60% of breastfeeding employees do not have the time and space they need to pump at work. That’s pretty remarkable given that four out of every five women start out breastfeeding. Workplace barriers are a major indicator of whether these women continue nursing, as recommended for the first year of a baby’s life for the health and well-being of both baby and mom. So we’re trying to spread the word about legal rights for nursing mothers, and shift the cultural understanding around the needs of breastfeeding women.

7. Besides the Pregnant at Work website, are there other ways the Center for WorkLife Law disseminates this information to workers/companies/attorneys/HR?

We publish articles (check out my blog on HuffPost: https://www.huffingtonpost.com/author/liz-morris), write legal briefs, operate a free legal hotline, and make public presentations to a wide range of audiences, including trainings for managers and attorneys. One of my favorite trainings occurred last year when I gave “grand rounds” at over a dozen medical schools, including Stanford, Harvard, Baylor, and others across the country. Grand rounds are an opportunity for doctors, midwives, med students, and other health care providers to learn about cutting edge issues in their field. It turns out that the work notes prenatal and postnatal care providers write for their pregnant and breastfeeding patients can have a huge impact on whether their patients get the accommodations they need at work, and surprisingly whether they keep their jobs. We’ve developed a program to train health care providers on how to effectively write work accommodation notes for their pregnant and breastfeeding patients that increase the likelihood they’ll get the accommodation they need to continue working. The written guidance we developed is available on PregnantAtWork.org.

8. What is the most positive feedback you’ve received about Pregnant at Work?

It is hard to pinpoint the most positive feedback, and the initiative has so many projects under its umbrella, but I knew we were making a difference when I read the evaluation results from the grand rounds lectures I just mentioned. The health care providers we trained told us that they had been writing their work accommodation notes wrong for years and that due to the tools we created, they felt they were equipped to write them more effectively in the future – and that they were committed to doing so after learning about the impact that they have on their pregnant patients’ abilities to continue earning an income and support their growing families.

I want to mention that credit for the doctors’ notes program and many of our other projects also goes to other organizations we’ve worked with over the years to identify problems faced by pregnant and breastfeeding employees and solutions to those problems. WorkLife Law convened a Pregnancy Accommodation Working Group that brought together advocates, scholars, government officials, health care providers, and others to study these issues, and a lot of our work wouldn’t have been possible but for the brilliance of our colleagues in that working group. There are too many to name here, but much of our work stems from this team’s collective efforts.

9. If someone is interested in connecting with the Center for WorkLife Law, what’s the best way to do so?

We’re always happy to share information about our work, learn about speaking engagements, and direct people to the resources we’ve created. Just give us a call (415-565-4640).

Family caregivers seeking information about their legal rights at work can call our free legal hotline where lawyers provide information about your legal rights and, if appropriate, make referrals to attorneys located in your state who are knowledgeable about family responsibilities discrimination. Contact info for the hotline:

Email: [email protected] (Email is the fastest way to get in touch);

Phone: 415-703-8276 (Leave a voicemail with your contact information and someone will return your call.)

10. What is the #1 thing you’d like readers to take away from today’s interview?

Working people should never be forced to choose between their jobs and the meaningful, essential stuff of life, like a healthy pregnancy, feeding your child, bonding with your newborn, or providing comfort to a dying parent. If you’re a caregiver and think you’re being treated unfairly at work, I hope you’ll access our online resources or contact our free legal hotline. We want to be of service.

Many thanks to Liz Morris and the Center for WorkLife Law for this interview!

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