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When Iris, 32, a kindergarten teacher, began a course of fertility treatment a year and a half ago, she was sure that the Women's Labor Law would protect her from being fired, as long as she was upfront and honest with her employer. But less than a year after commencing the treatment, she was told that her services were no longer needed.
"It was last summer, the kindergarten's owner called me and asked me to come help prepare for the new school year," recalls Iris (not her real name). "I told her that I'd already cleaned my area before the vacation began and that, in any case, I was not feeling well. Actually I'd just had a treatment and you have to be really careful for several days afterward, but she'd been so weird to me about the whole business that I just said I was ill."
When Iris suggested that she'd rather come in to prepare the art supplies - a far less physical job - her boss simply told her not to bother and not to return to work in September.
"I didn't get angry at that point. I was in a delicate state and couldn't afford to, but I was very hurt. I gave my soul to that kindergarten and could not believe that she was treating me like this," Iris says, adding that throughout the previous year she had noticed changes in her employer's behavior every time she mentioned she was going for the treatment or for a related medical test. "I tried to call her back and talk it over, but she refused to answer my calls."
Rather than argue with her former employer, Iris took her case to the Israel Women's Network, which provides women with support and legal advice on a variety of related issues. It agreed to provide her with pro bono legal aid and, less than two weeks ago, following a letter demanding she be compensated for unfair dismissal, the kindergarten owner agreed to pay her NIS 21,000.
"She told the other staff members that I was a dog with no bite, but I wanted to show her that I do have bite and that I would fight this thing all the way," says Iris, who became pregnant naturally less than a month after she was fired and is expecting her first child any day. "I did it so she would not discriminate in the future against other women in the same situation as me. In the private sector, employers think they can get away with whatever they want because no one will stand up to them, but I'm sure she'll think twice now about treating someone else the same way she treated me."
ACCORDING to Ifat Matzner, IWN's legal adviser and the individual responsible for securing Iris's victory, the organization's hot line has seen a marked increase in women reporting unfair dismissal from their workplace while they are undergoing fertility treatment.
Statistics collected by the hot line show that three times more women reported they'd been fired because they were going through the fertility process - 25 called in 2006, compared to eight in 2005. The figures also show a rise in the number of pregnant women being laid off - 282 in 2006, a jump from 104 in 2005.
"When a woman is pregnant and has worked for more than six months in the same place, her employer is not allowed to dismiss her without first being granted permission from the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Labor," explains Matzner, who has been working with IWN for the past seven years, first as a volunteer and now in an official capacity.
Even if the woman is still in the first five months of pregnancy and has not yet told her workplace that she is expecting, she can still demand the company go through the bureaucracy of requesting permission, says Matzner. "A woman undergoing fertility treatment, however, is not covered by the same law. She is only protected if she has informed her work that she's having treatment and is then fired."
Matzner says that although clear-cut cases such as Iris's are on the rise, the real problem arises when a woman does not feel like sharing her intimate story of infertility with her usually male boss.
"In those cases, the women try to keep it a secret and take personal days, sick leave or vacation," she says. Very often these women end up paying for it with their jobs and there is simply no recourse.
"An employer can find a million different reasons for firing an employee," Matzner points out.
But in cases where a woman is receiving fertility treatment, the boss has likely heard rumors that she is trying to get pregnant or has noticed her taking extra days off, and that is more likely the reason she is let go.
"It is almost impossible for her to prove that she was dismissed because of that," she says. "Fertility treatment should be considered the same as pregnancy. An employer does not have the right to know if a woman is undergoing the treatment; it's a very personal, intimate thing."
Matzner recalls another recent case that brought a similar success to Iris's. It involved a secretary, who did not want to be interviewed for this article, who had worked for four years at LLD Diamond Ltd., a company owned by millionaire Lev Leviev.
"The woman approached us through the hot line," says Matzner. "She had been honest with her boss and told her that she was going through the treatment but the company fired her anyway. The sad thing was that she actually wanted to go back to work there but they refused, saying that the company could not find her any other suitable position."
Instead, Leviev, ranked 210 on Forbes magazine's list of the world's richest people, just paid her off. "For Leviev, the NIS 20,000 settlement is the same as NIS 5 for any other person," Matzner says.
WHILE BOTH this case and Iris's were settled outside of court, Matzner says she is just waiting for the chance to take the next case of dismissal while undergoing fertility treatment to the labor courts, where hopefully a precedent-setting ruling will lead the way to challenging the current law.
Social worker Nirit Toshav-Ichner, who has spent the past four years researching the rights of pregnant women and those undergoing fertility treatment for her doctorate at the Hebrew University, agrees with Matzner.
"If a pregnant woman has five months to notify her workplace of her condition, how come a woman having fertility shots has to tell her employer straightaway?" asks Toshav-Ichner, whose research has included interviews with more than 100 women fired either while pregnant or having fertility treatments.
She notes that over recent years there have been several changes to the Women's Labor Law, which she calls advanced compared to other Western countries, but "the law is changing much slower than the trend."
By "the trend," Toshav-Ichner is referring to the growing number of women postponing having children until later in life, thus requiring medical intervention to become pregnant, says Barbara S. Okun, an associate professor in the Hebrew University's Department of Sociology and Anthropology, who has studied trends in the family both here and abroad.
"With technological advances, treatments are more straightforward and readily available, especially in Israel where it is covered under the health basket," she points out. "The number of women taking fertility treatments has risen significantly in the Western world over the past 30 years."
"So far, I have not found that many employers willing to discard the law but at some point there has to be a change," says Toshav-Ichner, whose research has contributed to discussions on the subject in the Knesset Committee for Labor, Health and Welfare and the Committee on the Status of Women.
A spokeswoman for the Committee on the Status of Women said the subject had been discussed last January and a bill to address some of the problems had its first reading. Among the issues it addresses are giving pregnant women and women undergoing fertility treatment the same protection enjoyed by men called up for military reserve duty.
Likud MK Gideon Sa'ar - chairman of the Committee on the Status of Women - announced Sunday that new legislation had been approved by the government's ministerial committee, which would protect mothers of two or more children who are undergoing fertility treatment from being fired.
"If the government has shown its agreement for this issue then its likely to pass through the Knesset plenum in the next two weeks and become a new law," Sa'ar spokesman Tzachi Dickstein says, explaining that current legislation is only relevant for families undergoing treatment for their first two children.
"Families that want to have more children, or new family units that are established [such as second marriages] are not protected by today's law," he says.
Sa'ar said in a statement, "It's time that legislation was created to protect the establishment of a new family unit." To which Dickstein added, "There are still other issues that need to be addressed; this is only the first step."
Matzner, who was involved in drafting the bill, remains hopeful. "If this country is offering subsidized fertility treatment with the purpose of increasing the population, then it also needs legislature that will protect these women."