Image: Avon

133 years ago, David H. McConnell started a company that would give women the chance to independently earn income. A traveling book salesman, McConnell got the idea to start what is now a $5.5 billion multi-level marketing company when he realized that one of the freebies he offered in connection with the books he was hawking – small samples of perfume – was proving to be more interesting to consumers than the books, themselves.

“Since women had a passion for his products and loved networking with other women, McConnell was inspired to recruit them as sales representatives” for a new company he dreamt up called the California Perfume Company. Fast forward to 1929 and the burgeoning perfume business had expanded internationally and introduced cosmetics, and ten years after that, it rebranded with a new name: Avon.

According to Avon’s website, the company has a “long history of empowering women around the globe,” giving women “the opportunity to be CEOs of their own businesses and control their economic destinies” 34 years before they had the right to vote in the U.S., 95 years before the first woman was appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court, 77 years before the first woman traveled into space, and 76 years before the first woman took the reins of a Fortune 500 company. In other words, Avon says that it “has been empowering women for 130 years.”

But Avon’s storied “women-centric approach [that] helps ‘break traditional barriers’” stands in stark contrast with the alleged reality that two former Avon employees describe in a new lawsuit against the company, asserting that it routinely discriminates against pregnant employees and new mothers.

“Being a new mother should be one of the most meaningful and significant experiences in life. It should not be a reason to fire or marginalize a female employee,” Caroline Ruiz and Olivera Krstanoska assert in the proposed class action lawsuit they filed in October in a New York Federal Court. Yet, that is precisely what Avon has done to them and “at least one other female employee.”

According to Ruiz, Avon’s former Global Head of North America Indirect Procurement, and Krstanoska, who worked as a microbiologist for Avon, the beauty company actively “ignores the laws enacted to accommodate employees that become pregnant and experience childbirth … and protect the rights of women from workplace abuses,” and instead, forces “female employees during maternity [to] work harder … than non-maternity status co- workers.”

To be exact, Ruiz claims that “just days after giving notice of her pregnancy” and informing HR that her doctor has recommended she be on bedrest for a week after she “experienced heavy bleeding” and it was deemed that there was an “exceedingly high likelihood that she would suffer a miscarriage.” Ruiz claims that “only one day after [she] informed Avon of her pregnancy, [she] was bombarded with fabricated ‘performance issues’” and her request to work remotely for 5 days was denied. Several days later, she was “terminated, effective immediately due to ‘performance deficiencies.’”

Krstanoska asserts that even before her maternity leave began in 2014, she requested that she be able to avoid working with certain chemicals in the lab at Avon’s Global Research & Development Center because they are known to “pose a risk for pregnant women and could impact detrimentally the healthy development of the fetus,” only to have more senior employees “harass” her and “insist that [she] continue to work with potentially harmful chemicals,” which Krstanoska claims that even more senior supervisors witnessed but did nothing to stop.

Upon returning from maternity leave, Krstanoska claims that she was subjected to “disparagement, marginalization and accusations of poor performance because she stayed home with her newborn after childbirth.” More than that, she claims that Avon executives failed to prevent other employees from making her “feel marginalized and penalized for taking short periods to pump breast milk” and also failed to provide her with “a private, safe place to refrigerate her breastmilk.”

Krstanoska says that she was “subjected to discriminatory hostile working conditions and an unsafe work environment” again during her second pregnancy in 2015, and was ultimately “constrictively discharged” as a result of the “escalating hostility” and harassment that she was experiencing.

The two named plaintiffs state that “no reasonable woman would expect [to be subjected to such treatment at] Avon, a company that brands itself as a champion of women’s causes.” However, despite the fact that Avon “distinguishes itself from mainstream companies based on its ‘passionate commitment’ to empowering women,” Ruiz and Krstanoska argue that in reality, “the company ‘for women’ actually is a company run by men,” and that its “workplace policies about maternity status and the procedures to implement such policies come from the top,” where there is a “disproportionately male dominated leadership team.”

Ruiz and Krstanoska assert that while Avon “boasts that more than 60% of [its] employees are female, a handful of men dominate the predominantly female workforce.”

“The CEO, Jan Zijderveld, is a white male. The CFO, Jamie Wilson, is a white male. The COO, Jonathan Myers, is a white male. The Global President, Miguel Fernandez, is a white male, [and] the list goes on,” they assert. “Appallingly, of the 18 members on the Management Committee, just five are women, [which] for a company that bases its entire brand on female empowerment is outrageous.”

“The message is clear,” the plaintiffs assert, “only men, not women, are fit to lead Avon.”

With the forgoing in mind, Ruiz and Krstanoska accuse Avon of violating Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions, and New York City and New York State Human Rights Laws. In addition to seeking damages and injunctive relief to permanently restrain Avon and “its partners, officers, owners, agents, successors, employees and/or representatives, and any and all persons acting in concert with them, from engaging in any such further unlawful conduct,” the plaintiffs have asked the court to certify their class action to enable other similarly situated employees to join the suit.

UPDATED (December 4, 2018): As indicated in recently-filed second amended complaint, a third named plaintiff, Maxine Rivas, has joined the suit. A former Avon employee, Rivas claims that she was discriminated against during and after her pregnancy, and was constructively discharged.

*The case is Ruiz v. New Avon LLC, et al., 1:18-cv-09033 (SDNY).