Commentary

Silicon Valley’s Egg-Freezing Perk Is Bad for People Across the Board

Marcy Darnovsky

Egg freezing is an individualized, questionably effective technical fix for a fundamentally social problem.

News about Silicon Valley’s egg-freezing perk has ignited many much-needed conversations about the tech industry’s family-unfriendly workplaces and policies that make it hard to reconcile being a mother and having a job. But of dozens of articles and blog posts, only a few have noted that establishing egg freezing as an employee benefit for a small number of privileged women is a bad idea across the board. For women who opt to freeze their eggs, the procedure’s safety is dubious; for everyone else, the practice shifts the focus away from the social changes that working families urgently need.

Defenders of the egg-freezing offer have welcomed it as an “option” for women lucky enough to work for Facebook or Apple—itself a highly limited career path, as recently compiled statistics about the lack of diversity in high-tech companies can attest. Like its lexical sister “choice,” “option” often functions as a trump card in potentially fraught debates like this one. I’m not arguing that “choice” or “options” are unimportant, but we need to to situate them in broader social contexts, too, including those of class, race, and gender.

Perhaps it’s unfair to link upscale frozen eggs to the overwhelming issue of economic inequality. But it’s worth noting that the dilemma of “work-family balance,” which seems to have spurred these corporations’ initiatives, is connected to the struggle for reproductive justice. Through that lens, we need policies that support women—all women—if and when they decide to have children, as well as if and when they decide not to bear a child.

Companies like Apple and Facebook are trend-setters, and their decisions about how to spend human resources budgets may well affect other corporate employers. That influence could be wielded in any number of ways. Imagine, for instance, that instead of upping the ante in the escalating “perk war” to attract and retain high-end employees, Apple and Facebook had worked with the HR departments of the security firms, caterers, and other companies with which they contract to develop basic parent-friendly benefits.

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After all, it’s safe to say that few working women in Silicon Valley or elsewhere would otherwise spend an unexpected $20,000 to put their eggs on ice. In every state in the country, $20,000 is more than a year’s salary at the hourly minimum wage. Even middle-income women would be far more likely to allocate such a windfall toward enrolling a toddler in a higher quality preschool, putting more food on the table, taking time off to take care of a newborn or sick parent, or signing up for a better health-care plan. Yet rather than committing to strategies that could conceivably aid families at all points on the employment spectrum, Facebook and Apple evidently chose to put time and money toward an extremely narrow slice of the population.

Furthermore, because egg freezing is a medical procedure, we need to assess its safety as well. In that context, the procedure is an “option,” all right—but one that is risky, invasive, and highly unreliable.

Egg retrieval itself is neither simple nor safe. It involves weeks of injections with powerful hormones, some used off-label, to hyper-stimulate the ovaries. Nausea, bloating, and discomfort are common. More serious reactions requiring hospitalization—including severe pain, intra-abdominal bleeding, and ovarian torsion—occur at low, but not negligible, rates. Deaths, though fortunately rare, have been reported.

Some studies suggest that egg retrieval is associated with higher rates of infertility and cancer. But shockingly, though the fertility industry has harvested eggs for decades, there have been too few follow-up studies to ascertain the extent of these longer-term risks.

With so much that is unstudied or under-studied about the safety of egg retrieval, meeting the bioethical standard of “informed consent” for patients is actually quite challenging. Of course, women who freeze their own eggs for possible later use, like those who undergo egg retrieval when they’re actively pursuing a pregnancy, often say they’re willing to take risks because of their deep desire for a genetically related child.

But even the motivating strategy here—work and freeze now, then mother later—carries low odds of success. According to a 2013 meta-analysis, even the newest flash-freezing method fails up to 77 percent of the time among women age 30, and close to 90 percent of the time in women age 40.

Then there’s the matter of safety for children who result from frozen-and-thawed eggs. The chemicals used in the freezing process are toxic, but no one knows whether they’re absorbed by embryos, or whether that might cause problems as children get older. Even the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, whose fertility clinic members have an arguable financial interest in promoting expensive new procedures, discourages egg freezing for elective, non-medical reasons.

Though it’s unfortunate that Facebook and Apple are endorsing an unproven technique that puts their own employees’ health at risk, it makes sense that this quick-fix engineering approach would appeal to high-tech giants used to reshaping the world with gadgets and gizmos. And while they probably weren’t expecting the backlash, covering the egg-freezing tab to keep more of their female employees “leaning in” for more hours, and more years, may turn out to be a net plus for the companies. A lucky few women among this already tiny minority may also wind up winners, with higher-powered careers, and babies too.

But egg freezing is an individualized, questionably effective technical fix for what is fundamentally a social problem—or, rather, a whole raft of them. Let’s hope the next round of conversations about work and families includes strategies for confronting those issues, too, such as public policies and family-friendly workplaces that support reasonable and gender-equitable wages, paid parental leave, quality health care, and affordable child care for all of us.

News Economic Justice

Wage Theft Could Cost $32 Million Weekly for Pennsylvania’s Low-Wage Workers

Michelle D. Anderson

Advocates say that government oversight is weak, and laws only provide a slap on the wrist when they are enforced. Pennsylvania—much like the federal government—lacks enough regulators.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s recent refusal to consider a case involving several thousand Walmart employees brought attention to what employment advocates in Pennsylvania call a hidden crisis: wage theft.

Legal aid agencies and advocacy organizations such as the Pennsylvania-based Women’s Law Project use the term to describe employers’ refusal to pay wages due their workers.

“Shortchanged: How Wage Theft Harms Pennsylvania’s Workers And Economy,” a study released by the Sheller Center for Social Justice at Temple University’s Beasley School of Law, revealed that cooks, dishwashers, and food preparers, along with stock/office clerks and retail salespeople, were among the largest low-wage worker groups experiencing weekly minimum wage violations.

Employers commit wage theft by paying a daily rate that does not meet Pennsylvania’s $7.25 hourly minimum wage requirements, misclassifying people who work as independent contractors, paying in cash, failing to keep adequate records, and taking money out of paychecks to account for uniforms, supplies, and other products necessary to perform the job.

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Terry L. Fromson, managing attorney at the Women’s Law Project, a public interest legal center, told Rewire that the practice compromises women’s economic security in Pennsylvania, where women make up about two-thirds of people who work for minimum wage, and where the minimum wage is the lowest allowed by federal law.

“Factor in losing 15 percent of a would-be paycheck to wage theft, and a family led by a primary or sole breadwinning mother sinks further into poverty,” Fromson said.

In the Walmart case, first decided by a Philadelphia jury in October 2006, 186,000 current and former employees from the retailer’s Pennsylvania stores were awarded $187 million in a class action suit for unpaid wages that were withheld between March 1998 and April 2006.

The workers’ counsel, Donovan Litigation Group, said the employees had been owed $140 million of the $187 million and will now split $224 million due to interest, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Walmart had appealed the decision in 2006, taking the case to Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court, who affirmed the jury verdict in 2014. U.S. Supreme Court justices on April 4 decided to not take up the case and to support the state’s high court decision.

In the years since Walmart employees first took action, workers and legal aid agencies across the United States, including in Pennsylvania, have brought many more wage theft cases.

Last year, for example, more than three dozen people who work for low wages at the Denver-area Carniceria y Verduleria Guadalajara grocery store won $305,000 in back wages and penalties in a U.S. District Court ruling using federal and state “wage theft” laws.

Papa John’s franchisees in New York were found guilty of wage theft last year and ordered to pay back more than $500,000 to settle claims that they swindled employees out of earned income.

There remains, however, little information as to how prevalent wage theft has become across the country, advocates for low-wage workers told Rewire. The Sheller Center last year sought to fill the void in wage theft data in Pennsylvania.

The study, which used the state’s right-to-know law to obtain data from the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry (DLI) and relied upon extrapolations rather than original data, found that the state’s people who work for low wages, on average, lose about 15 percent of the their earnings to wage theft.

The study suggested that nearly 400,000 people who work in Pennsylvania experience a minimum wage violation and more than 300,000 experience an overtime violation every workweek. The weekly loss amounts to an estimated $19-32 million in wages, according to the “Shortchanged” authors.

The study revealed that the DLI, the state agency responsible for handling wage theft matters, was unable to collect wages in more than half of the complaints filed by people who work.

In fact, despite closing 5,000 cases annually, the DLI collects wages in about 2,000 of those incidents, according to the Temple University study.

The U.S. Department of Labor in a study released last year acknowledged the prevalence of wage theft among wage and salary workers in California and New York.

The report concluded that more than 300,000 people who work in those states were victims of wage theft. Many of those affected, the federal study revealed, work in service-based positions in the restaurant and hotel industries and were more likely to be women, people of color, and undocumented people.

Undocumented residents in New York, for example, were 3.1 times more likely to experience wage theft.

A local report released by Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en Lucha in Minneapolis found that nearly half of low-wage workers in the Twin Cities have experienced wage theft.

Nadia Hewka, senior attorney at Community Legal Services, a Philadelphia-based legal aid outlet, said many businesses exploit undocumented workers’ vulnerabilities.

“Employers cut corners—some of them will choose to hire immigrant workers because they think they won’t complain,” Hewka told Rewire.

At Community Legal Services, Hewka said many people who work don’t know they are entitled to overtime and often seek to recover wages after they haven’t been paid for extended periods of time.

“That often happens with immigrant workers who are not familiar with laws in the U.S.,” said Hewka, co-founder of the Pennsylvania Immigrant Workers Rights Coalition.

The “Shortchanged” authors noted that undocumented workers fear their supervisors will call immigration authorities, while immigrants with employment visas are often afraid they may lose visa privileges if they speak up.

Identifying Wage Theft

The Temple University study, which excluded low-wage employees in more rural settings, like farm, forestry, and fishing workers, outlined the many ways employers get away with wage theft.

The report relied upon a landmark investigation released in 2009 called “Broken Laws, Unprotected Workers,” which surveyed low-wage workers in Chicago, New York City, and Los Angeles.

The “Broken Laws” study estimated about 90 percent of home health-care workers were victims of off-the-clock violations.

Philadelphia resident Natasha, whose last name was withheld by the “Shortchanged” authors, was a victim of wage theft while working as a home health-care worker.

Her employer, who often avoided workers and created barriers to keep employees from engaging each other about their paychecks, failed to compensate Natasha for travel time between client homes and even missed paycheck due dates.

The mother of four, who made $9.50 per hour and witnessed her boss call the police on coworkers who complained about wage theft, was ultimately fired after becoming ill despite her stellar attendance and documented excuse for missing work.

“I was so frustrated and I wanted to break down and cry because I couldn’t spend another week not being able to feed my children, having to choose between bread, eggs or milk,” she said, according to the study. “It was the worst experience of my life.”

Advocates for people who work low-wage jobs contend that wage theft also hurts the state’s economy, because money that would otherwise be spent in the economy is stolen from people who work, while businesses evade taxes that could be used to fund schools and road projects.

Law-abiding businesses may struggle to compete with enterprises that steal wages, advocates said.

The U.S. Department of Labor study noted that the burden of wage theft ultimately shifts from the private sector to the government because people who work for low wages will seek public assistance if their pay is insufficient.

People who work for low wages and their allies have looked to key policy changes to address wage theft, though it’s proven difficult because of resistance in Pennsylvania’s Republican-controlled legislature, Hewka said.

Some measures proposed during the 2015-2016 legislative session, like HB 250, which sought to raise the penalty for wage theft and for retaliating against an employee for reporting said theft, get stuck in committees and die there, she said.

A resolution to discharge the house’s labor and industry committee from further consideration of HB 250 was presented in October 2015.

Legislators in other states have proposed measures aimed at addressing wage theft. Democratic lawmakers in Wisconsin last year proposed legislation that would allow the state’s Department of Workforce Development to charge interest on unpaid wages and levy fines up to $1,000 per violation against employers who break state wage theft laws.

Hewka added that government oversight, overall, is weak and laws only provide a slap on the wrist when they are enforced, she said. Pennsylvania—much like the federal government—lacks enough regulators, she said.

In Pennsylvania, the Minimum Wage Act and the Wage Payment and Collection Law are the protections low-wage workers can rely on to reclaim stolen wages.

The Wage Payment and Collection Law limits penalties to the higher of $500 or 25 percent of wages owed, and includes criminal fines limited to $300.

The state’s minimum wage law, on the other hand, doesn’t offer any damages to people who work low-wage jobs, unlike federal law.

“Shortchanged” authors have recommended harsher penalties for employers, including business license revocation and allowing people who work to place a hold on employer’s property until they receive unpaid wages.

Other solutions encourage state policymakers to collaborate with community groups to target investigations and to create a process for workers to submit anonymous or confidential complaints.

The state has enjoyed some successes in battling systemic wage theft against people who work.

Philadelphia City Councilman William “Bill” Greenlee sponsored a bill that will create a wage-theft watchdog in the city’s Managing Director’s Office.

The bill, which was unanimously approved by the council in November, requires a wage-theft coordinator to respond to worker complaints and find victims who may lack education about their rights.

The coordinator will be responsible for looking at thefts of anywhere between $100 and $10,000, and can revoke business licenses and impose a city fine of $2,000 per incident.

Hewka, who worked with Greenlee on the measure, said the city should be prepared to handle complaints in July.

The measure, she said, will offer relief to low-income citizens who cannot afford a private lawyer and legal aid groups who can only provided a limited amount of free services.

Analysis LGBTQ

A Challenge to North Carolina’s HB 2 Could Mean Greater Protection for Trans People

Imani Gandy

Courts have historically been reluctant to designate transgender people as a discrete group that has suffered discrimination and therefore needs special legal treatment. But that may be changing.

A recent lawsuit filed by two transgender North Carolinians may offer an opportunity for the U.S. Supreme Court to expand the reach of the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause to include transgender people. In the lawsuit, Carcaño v. McCrory, Joaquín Carcaño and Payton McGarry have challenged the constitutionality of the bathroom provisions of HB 2, North Carolina’s newly passed law that, among other things, prohibits transgender people from using public restroom facilities that align with their gender identity.

The law singles out transgender people and denies them a benefit that cisgender people enjoy—the ability to use public restrooms consistent with their gender identity—and so it seems to be a fairly straightforward violation of the Equal Protection Clause, which prohibits singling out a specific group of people for mistreatment under the law. That said, the Court has not yet weighed in as to where gender identity discrimination fits into the Equal Protection Clause. The speed with which state legislatures are passing bathroom discrimination bills, however, suggests that it won’t be long before the Court is asked to do so. Without constitutional protection, more of these policies targeting transgender people will continue to be implemented throughout the country.

Despite a long history of unjust discrimination against transgender people, lower courts have time and again refused to deem them a protected class because, in their estimation, transgender people—or “transsexuals,” as much of the case law describes them—are not a “discrete and insular minority.”

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Since the Court first articulated the concept in the 1930s, it has developed hallmark characteristics to determine which “discrete and insular minorities”—otherwise known as “suspect classes”require special assistance from courts when it comes to laws that discriminate against them, and how much assistance courts should render. These are groups that have historically been subjected to discrimination, groups that are a small percentage of the population and therefore in danger of tyranny by the majority, and groups with “immutable characteristics,” a term coined by the Court to describe things like race and gender.

Black people, for example, are a suspect class according to Supreme Court jurisprudence. Laws that target them for discrimination will rarely pass constitutional muster because the strict scrutiny standard, which requires that the law be narrowly tailored to promote a “compelling government interest,” is a difficult hurdle to surpass. In other words, if a law singles out Black people for different treatment, the government must have a damn good reason why, and the Court is going to start from the presumption that the government’s reason still isn’t good enough.

Women, on the other hand, are a “quasi-suspect class”: The Court has determined that laws targeting women for unequal treatment may pass constitutional muster, if the laws are substantially related to an “important government interest.”

But when it comes to transgender people, most courts have refused to call them a suspect or quasi-suspect class.

Determining that trans people should be protected by the courts does not require an academic discussion about the immutability of gender identity, however. All it requires is common sense.

The suicide attempt rate for transgender or gender-nonconforming people in the United States is 41 percent, compared to 4.6 percent among the overall population. The unemployment rate in the trans community is double what it is for the country as a whole. Violence against trans people, trans women of color in particular, is staggering, as are poverty levels. Transgender people aren’t adequately represented in government bodies, and due in part to their small numbers, they lack the political power to prevent laws that discriminate against them from being passed.

Just look at the way HB 2 was rushed through the North Carolina legislature: On February 22, the Charlotte City Council approved an ordinance that would amend existing public accommodations policies to include protection from discrimination based on “gender identity,” “gender expression,” and “sexual orientation.” A month later, after a quasi-emergency legislative session, Gov. Pat McCrory (R) was already signing a law stripping away those protections and preventing any other cities from enacting similar ordinances at a cost of approximately $42,000 to North Carolina taxpayers. The law is so apparently unconstitutional that Roy Cooper, North Carolina’s attorney general and Democratic gubernatorial candidate, refuses to defend it, calling it a “national embarrassment.”

This rush to strip LGBTQ people of rights is a case study in the rule of a tyrannical majority over a “discrete and insular minority.” Indeed, it is difficult to think of a group of people more deserving of the “suspect class” label than transgender people.

But for reasons that no court has been able to articulate satisfactorily, laws that discriminate against transgender people—some of the most vulnerable members of our society—have generally not warranted a stricter examination than rational basis review, which rarely results in legislation being struck down.

In 1977, for example, in a case called Holloway v. Arthur Andersen & Co., the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reasoned that “transsexuality” did not meet the indicia of a suspect classification because transsexuals are not a “discrete and insular minority” and because the plaintiff in that case did not establish that “transsexuality is an immutable characteristic determined solely by the accident of birth, like race, or national origin.”

Occasionally, lower courts have lumped gender identity in with biological sex, although trans and cis women can face different kinds of oppression. In a 2011 case, Glenn v. Brumbythe 11th Circuit Court of Appeals found that “discriminating against someone on the basis of his or her gender non-conformity constitutes sex-based discrimination under the Equal Protection Clause.” The terms “protected class,” “suspect class,” or “quasi-suspect class” are not found anywhere in the opinion.

Because of all that uncertainty, transgender people have often turned to suing under claims of employment discrimination in violation of Title VII, or education-based discrimination in violation of Title IX. And they’ve found success, even as the courts sidestep the protected class issue.

This is because a 1989 Supreme Court case, Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, recognized a Title VII cause of action for discrimination based on an employee’s failure to conform to stereotypical gender norms. (Title VII and Title IX cases are often analyzed using the same set of legal principles.)

In 2004, in a case called Smith v. City of Salem, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals applied the Price Waterhouse theory to “transsexuals”: “[d]iscrimination against a plaintiff who is a transsexual—and therefore fails to act and/or identify with his or her gender—is no different from the discrimination directed against Ann Hopkins in Price Waterhouse, who in sex-stereotypical terms, did not act like a woman.”

However, this tactic is not always successful. In Johnston v. University of Pittsburgh, a transgender man was repeatedly sanctioned for using the men’s bathroom and locker room after being told that he was no longer permitted to use those facilities. He sued the university claiming discrimination under Title IX. The district court rejected his claim in March of last year, stating that the university’s policy refusing a transgender man access to the men’s locker room was based on the need to ensure the privacy of its students to disrobe and shower outside of the presence of members of the opposite sex. The court went on to note “[t]his justification has been repeatedly upheld by courts.”

As Harper Jean Tobin of the National Center for Transgender Equality and Professor Jennifer L. Levi of Western New England University School of Law pointed out in a 2013 law review article, however, “No court has ever held that there is any legal right to privacy that would be violated simply by permitting a transgender person to access a gender-specific facility that corresponds to his or her gender identity.”

For the past decade, there has been a movement toward recognizing transgender people as a protected class without any court having to actually say the words. This string of successes is partially due to the Obama administration’s federal agencies, which have implemented forward-thinking policies that apply to Title VII and Title IX claims. Without explicit constitutional protection, trans rights are relegated to the whims of the legislative and executive branches. It’s as if courts recognize that transgender people are getting the short end of the equal protection stick, but have yet to follow that recognition to the next logical step.

Until recently.

In November of last year, a judge in New York became the first federal judge to rule that transgender people are a protected class. In Adkins v. City of New York, plaintiff Justin Adkins alleged that he had been treated differently than other Occupy Wall Street protesters who were arrested during a protest on the Brooklyn Bridge in 2011 because he is transgender. Adkins filed suit alleging equal protection violations.
The City of New York moved to dismiss the lawsuit: The City argued that transgender people are not a protected class under a 2009 case, Lopez v. City of New York, which held exactly that. Adkins’ equal protection claims, therefore, should be subject only to rational basis review, making it more likely that the lawsuit would be dismissed.

Adkins countered that the appropriate standard of review is intermediate scrutiny because discrimination against transgender people is a form of gender discrimination or, alternatively, because transgender people are a quasi-suspect class and his claims are subject to intermediate review on that basis.

The court sided with Adkins, but not on the basis—as with previous court rulings—that transgender discrimination is a form of gender discrimination. Instead, the court ruled that transgender people are a quasi-suspect class in light of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision in Windsor v. United States, the precursor to the national case eventually leading to the downfall of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). In Windsor, the Second Circuit ruled that “homosexual people” were a quasi-suspect class on the basis of four factors: (1) gay people have suffered a history of persecution; (2) sexual orientation has no relation to ability to contribute to society; (3) gay people are a discernible group; and (4) gay people remain politically weakened.

In November of last year, the Department of Education issued a landmark decision for transgender rights in education, holding that an Illinois school district violated anti-discrimination laws when it did not allow a transgender girl student who participated on a girls’ sports team to change and shower in the girls’ locker room, as reported by my colleague Jessica Mason Pieklo.

And just last week, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals held that the lawsuit of a transgender high school student named Gavin Grimm challenging his school’s bathroom policy should move forward. The court did so after the Department of Education, under the Obama administration, released guidelines warning that school rules forcing transgender students into segregated bathrooms or bathrooms inconsistent with their gender identity would be considered a violation of Title IX. Because the federal appeals court depended on the agency guidance to make that ruling, Gavin Grimm’s lawsuit is an important step in firmly establishing statutory legal protections for transgender people while waiting for the Supreme Court to determine where they stand under the Equal Protection Clause.

Plenty of school districts across the country have followed the administration’s lead and created guidelines to ensure that transgender students can safely and peacefully use their preferred bathrooms. The federal government has adopted a policy that extends the Department of Education guidance and permits federal workers to access workplace facilities that align with their gender identity as a matter of “dignity and respect,” and to “provide a workplace that is free from discrimination whether that discrimination is based on race, color, religion, sex (including gender identity or pregnancy), national origin, disability, political affiliation, marital status, membership in an employee organization, age, sexual orientation, or other non-merit factors.”

Which brings us back to Carcaño and McGarry’s lawsuit challenging the bathroom provisions in North Carolina’s HB 2. When Windsor made its way to the Supreme Court, the Court, in an opinion authored by Anthony Kennedy, invalidated DOMA without saying whether gay people are a suspect class, and ignored the Second Circuit’s ruling that theyare a quasi-suspect class. Kennedy, as he is wont to do, framed the issue as one of “human dignity.”

It is no surprise, then, that the term “dignity” is peppered throughout Joaquin Carcaño and Payton McGarry’s complaint challenging HB 2 on equal protection grounds. Carcaño and McGarry are asking a district court in North Carolina to declare them members of a protected class entitled to heightened scrutiny. If the district court refuses, they will presumably ask the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. If that court also refuses, it will be up to the Supreme Court to explain how discrimination against transgender people as transgender people is no big deal and warrants only rational basis review, but discrimination against transgender people as a form of gender discrimination warrants heightened scrutiny.

In this case, there is another option for protecting LGBTQ people’s rights, though not one that may be useful for future assaults. If the Supreme Court continues to punt on whether LGBTQ people are a protected class or finds that permitting transgender people to use the appropriate restroom and locker room facilities somehow implicates a heretofore undiscovered legal right to privacy, then it is in this context that Anthony Kennedy’s dignity jurisprudence, which was also the linchpin of his majority opinion in Obergefell v. Hodges, will do quite nicely: Where is the dignity in forcing transgender people to use a bathroom that doesn’t align with their gender identity?

There is none.