The Federal Court has awarded a photographer $174,000 in compensation after finding she was subject to pregnancy discrimination by her employer Piccoli Photography.
The court found Samantha Sagona was forced to resign from her job as a result of Piccoli Photography’s response to her pregnancy.
Sagona was employed for 12 years by Piccoli Photography, a Melbourne photography business operated by Robert Piccoli and Christine Piccoli.
But Sagona told the court while the initial reaction to the news of her pregnancy was positive and included flowers and a card, she was later told that she would need to take long service.
Sagona claims she was told that she could continue her normal role until the end of the year but would then need to take her long service leave after the summer holidays and before she had the baby.
The court heard Sagona was told if she insisted on returning to work after the summer holidays she could only do so in a “behind the scenes capacity”.
She could not continue to undertake photo shoots, have sales appointments with customers or be seen by customers because it “was not a good look” for customers to see a pregnant woman working in the business and this would make the Piccolis look like they were “slave drivers”.
Sagona was also told she would look “desperate” if she worked while she was noticeably pregnant.
Piccoli Photography also told Sagona if she did return to work after the summer holidays, her pay would need to be cut because she would not be generating any income for the business due to the fact that she would not be working as a photographer.
Judge Whelan found Sagona had no choice but to resign.
“The capacity for women to continue in employment during their pregnancy and to be able to continue with their career after having a child are matters which as a society we consider should be protected,” Judge Whelan said.
“I consider that there is a need for general deterrence with respect to both of these matters and, in particular, with respect to employees employed in small businesses.”
Christine Piccoli told SmartCompany the Piccolis are considering appealing the case.
“Our business was disrupted for about two years, we tried to settle as well on occasions which did not happen, we did everything we possibly could,” she says.
“It’s pretty tough. We were naive and inexperienced, you definitely have to get advice from the beginning.”
But Giri Sivaraman, principal in the employment practices group at law firm Maurice Blackburn, says Piccoli Photography had made it very difficult and very uncomfortable for the employee just because she was pregnant.
“They immediately assumed she would have difficulty performing the role without inquiring how pregnancy would affect her doing her job,” Sivaraman says.
He says Piccoli Photography decided it didn’t want Sagona back after the pregnancy and manufactured reasons to put pressure on her to leave.
“It’s sad and highly regrettable that an employer would take such an antiquated and terrible view towards an employee because she is pregnant,” Sivaraman says.
“You can’t simply assume because your employee is pregnant that she is going to be unable to do her job or that she is some sort of hindrance that needs to be moved aside.”
Sivaraman says if a business has a genuine concern about an employee’s ability to perform the job then as a minimum it should speak to the employee about these concerns.
Sivaraman recommends having a genuine and thoughtful discussion, not simply making assumptions and acting on those assumptions.
“You should absolutely not contrive performance reasons to maneuver an employee out of the workplace. It’s unlawful and unethical and it’s incredibly demeaning to that employee,” he says.