Securing Labor Rights for (Modern) Working Women

60 million workers today are contract employees. 40 percent of them are women. As the economy shifts away from traditional employment models and toward a “gig economy,” it becomes even more imperative that we realize the heavy price some people pay in the way of labor rights to stay afloat.

WOC in Tech Chat / Creative Commons

While contract employment can have many drawbacks for myriad communities, women are some of the most vulnerable. The rights that workers fought to secure for themselves for generations are now being trampled upon as employers try to find clever ways around pesky things like the Pregnancy Discrimination Act or Equal Pay Act with contract labor.

Contract workers—employees who are hired temporarily for a certain period of time—are oftentimes subject to the whims of employers. The most obvious drawbacks of this kind of work are connected to benefits, or lack thereof: Some contract workers are extended benefits, but on the whole many may not realize what rights they also lose when they sign the dotted line.

A full or part-time employee is entitled to healthcare, a 401K and overtime pay; contract workers enjoy none of these benefits. Contract laborers are not given the same due in salary negotiations as full- or part-time employees, making it easier for employers to violate the Equal Pay Act or Non-Discrimination Act without even technically violating the law. And perhaps worst of all is that contract workers rarely have protection from unfair termination or discrimination—which can very specifically endanger women’s economic lives.

I remember my days as an adjunct professor at a prominent City University in New York. As an adjunct, I was a contract employee working from semester to semester. I had worked continuously for six semesters straight, getting good performance reviews from my colleagues and students, and had even proposed my own classes that had been accepted by the registrar—but after I got pregnant and then gave birth to my daughter, my contract for the next semester was immediately terminated.

The University had not been thrilled that I had to take time off in October to have my daughter. I was pressured to take only two weeks off—and so, as I sometimes tell people, “I went back to work bleeding and leaking.” The University would not help me find a substitute for my classes, telling me that I should simply find another teacher and write them a check out of my own pocket for the days they subbed. And though I found a sub and paid them the wages I would have earned during my time away, the very next semester this University informed me that my contract was being terminated.

They gave no reason. The only difference between my last semester there and all my previous semesters was my pregnancy.

One of the first things I did was inform my Union of what had happened. When the school got wind of my suit through the Union, they sent a university-wide email talking about their accommodations for pregnant faculty—but they never once contacted me. (I didn’t even receive the email—I heard about it, instead, through a friend who still worked at the school.)

There is no Pregnancy Discrimination Act for contract workers. There is no Employment Non-Discrimination Act for contract workers. There is no Equal Pay Act for contract workers. Though many labor laws have far to go in the ways of implementation, and employers have long exploited their loopholes, they are something—a back-up plan when employers are in the wrong, and proof that workers have certain inalienable rights and the chance to demand fairness in the workplace.

The Union lawyer who was assigned to me was up in arms about my termination. She said she would, of course, help to bring me justice. But a hearing was held, and nothing much was said, and after a few weeks she told me that there was nothing she could do. I was a contract employee. They didn’t have to give me a reason for termination. She suggested that I should simply “move on from this.” I did move on, but I still wonder about how fair that situation was.

What employees lose as contract workers aren’t just benefits and job security. It’s also their rights. Too many employers are trying to render mute the rights feminists and labor rights activists fought to gain decades ago in a fast-changing, modern economy. It’s time that we rose up just as loudly as our foremothers to protect them.


Jessica Stilling is a freelance writer and educator living in New York City. She has taught at City College, SUNY Old Westbury and The New School. Her debut novel, Betwixt and Between, was published in 2013.