Politics

Former Henry Cuellar Aide Files Discrimination Complaint for Being Fired Over Pregnancy

Texas Democrat’s office defends firing without addressing claims

A former senior staffer for Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, says she was fired for being pregnant — a violation of federal law. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

A former acting chief of staff to Texas Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar has filed a complaint claiming that she was fired for being pregnant, a violation of federal law.

“After serving as staff in the House of Representatives for 13.5 years I had the opportunity to become the acting Chief of Staff for a different Congressman. After finding out and communicating I was pregnant, I was fired,” Katie Small wrote in a Facebook post Thursday evening.

Small submitted a request Monday to the Office of Compliance, which handles discrimination and harassment complaints in the legislative branch, The Washington Post reported. 

Cuellar’s office defended Small’s firing last week in a statement to the Post, but declined to address her claims in detail.

“The Office of Representative Cuellar considers internal personnel matters confidential and will not comment publicly on Ms. Small’s allegations at this time, except to say that the office values its employees and conducts all personnel matters in compliance with the congressional Accountability Act and applicable House Rules. All actions taken with respect to Ms. Small’s employment were in compliance with the law and House Rules,” the statement read.

Under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, a woman “cannot be fired, rejected for a job or promotion, given lesser assignments, or forced to take leave” because of her pregnancy. While Capitol Hill employees are not protected by all federal employment statutes, they do have protections under the Congressional Accountability Act, or CAA, the 1995 law that governs workplace harassment and discrimination claims in Congress.

“I hope I can spur a change for women and families around the country by standing up for what is right,” Small wrote on Facebook.

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Before joining Cuellar’s office, Small worked for more than 13 years as an aide to Pennsylvania Democratic Rep. Robert A. Brady, according to her LinkedIn page and the House directory. 

The reporting and resolution process for complaints under the CAA has been widely criticized for taking too long and putting much of the burden on victims. It requires periods of mandatory counseling and a 30-day “cooling off” period.

Both the House and Senate have passed bills that would overhaul the CAA. But there are still significant sticking points in reconciling the two bills, including the scope of lawmaker liability for harassment and discrimination claims. 

Seeking “confidential counseling” with the OOC is the first step in the dispute resolution process set up by the CAA. Small took that step this week.

The OOC gives congressional employees up to 180 days after an alleged incident to request counseling, which lasts for 30 days. Next come 30 days of mediation if the victim requests it, under which the employee and the office can confidentially reach a voluntary settlement.

After at least those two months, the employee can request an administrative proceeding before a hearing officer or file a case in federal district court. Neither process can start until 30 days after mediation, but no longer than 90 days. Following an administrative hearing, the employee has the option of appealing the officer’s decision to the OOC’s board.

Cuellar  has represented his 28th District in South Texas since 2005 and co-chairs the Blue Dog Coalition of moderate Democrats. He faces no Republican opponent next month. 

Small told The Washington Post that her firing has put her family’s finances in jeopardy and raised the possibility that she will have to find new doctors at a crucial stage in her pregnancy.

“I don’t want other women to have to face this,” she said. “If I can help change employers’ minds on how they treat pregnancy, that’s my goal.”

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