Maternity Heave

Babies "R" Us is a pacifier wonderland, a crib mecca, the keeper of more blankies than anyone knows what to do with. You might call the lucrative Toys "R" Us subsidiary a "baby superstore," of which there are seven in South Florida and 232 nationwide. In the glistening aisles of the West Palm Beach store, salespeople fuss over women with distended bellies. They retrieve breast pumps hovering just out of reach. And they always offer a cushy seat to a lady with a bun in the oven.

Unless, of course, she happens to work there.

Being a pregnant manager at Babies "R" Us didn't get Renee Bettis any special treatment. In fact, she says it eventually got her fired, and now she's suing the company for discrimination.

In May 2004, the company recruited Bettis through a headhunter. She trained for more than a year, excelled, and was promoted to assistant manager. Over a little less than two years, she was transferred four times, either for a promotion or because a store was in need of a good manager. That made it tough to build relationships with other employees, but Bettis liked experiencing all the different stores. She loved assisting the pregnant women who had come to register and design their nurseries.

Bettis wowed her supervisors when she performed an analysis of the store's four biggest competitors — Wal-Mart, Target, La Ideal Baby, and Baby Love. She evaluated the competitors' top 100 items and determined which store held the market for each of those items. She produced a 15-page report, complete with graphs and charts.

"It made it all the way up to the vice president of the company," Bettis remembers with pride. Store managers told her she was "driven, focused, and would be promoted."

As the sole breadwinner while her husband finished his business degree, Bettis could have used the extra money. Seemingly on the fast track, she was told she would be a manager within six months. Then she got pregnant.

"I was extremely excited. My husband and I had been together for seven years, and it was a welcome surprise," she said. "I wanted to be very open and up-front at work, but I was nervous about telling the district manager. All the articles I had read said to be careful. Make sure you have a plan in place."

She had good reason for her concern. A former assistant manager at the Boca Raton store had recently gone through a pregnancy, claimed she would eventually return, then bailed on Babies "R" Us to raise her child. District Manager Bill Polselli was angry, Bettis remembers, and he continually asked Bettis about her own pregnancy and how her diabetes might affect it. "I've been burned before," she says he would tell her.

But she continued to excel, and Bettis became interim store manager of West Palm Beach, 60 miles from her home, within three months. Polselli gave her the impression she'd eventually be the permanent store manager, and Bettis bought a house nearby in Lake Worth. She thought that might show she was serious about coming back to her job after taking time off after the birth. Under Bettis, the store ranked first in the 12-store district in guest service and fifth in evaluations by mystery shoppers. But Polselli's interrogations about her pregnancy continued.

He began accusing her of opening the store late and closing early, she says, and told her that some employees had filed complaints against her on the company ethics hotline. (None could be tracked down by Bettis or her lawyer.) And finally, in August 2005, Polselli told Bettis she would not become the permanent manager of the West Palm Beach store. He hired a man.

"You should concentrate on the baby and your health and don't worry about work," Bettis remembers being told. "It will take you about six months time after coming back from maternity leave to recover from the baby and come up to speed. We can talk about a promotion then."

"I finally told him, 'I don't appreciate being harassed because I'm pregnant,'" Bettis said. An hour later, Polselli fired her.

There would be no severance pay. Bettis had just taken out a $250,000 mortgage on her new home. Her husband wasn't working. She certainly couldn't use Babies "R" Us as a reference. And as she followed her swollen belly out of the store, she heard Polselli call out, "It's unfortunate this had to happen to someone in your condition."

"I went home, and I cried. I just cried," Bettis said. "I had never been fired from anywhere. I was 32. Eight months pregnant. I called my husband, and I said, 'How would you like to be the breadwinner now?' He was very supportive. He said we're going to make it through this. I had to minimize my stress for the health of Margaret [the baby]."

Of course, Bettis' pregnancy and her firing are just a coincidence, her supervisors say in court documents. (The company's attorney declined to comment for this article. Polselli could not be reached.) They claim that Bettis was actually fired over two incidents that Loss Prevention Manager Dave Nelson discovered when he performed an audit of the West Palm Beach store in August 2005.

For one, Bettis gave herself an excessive discount on a $129.90 cherry-red Bayberry Chest. That's a no-no, Nelson said, for two reasons. First of all, employees cannot ring up their own purchases, and furthermore, Bettis should have received only a 30 percent discount, not 40 percent. Bettis explains that another employee rang up her purchase. Neither of them realized she had been granted an extra 10 percent discount. When questioned further by Bettis' lawyer, Nelson conceded that he doesn't actually know who rang up the sale.

But that's not the only time Bettis slipped up, Nelson insisted in his report. Apparently, she was overly generous with the company's cold beverages. Her managers claim she gave out six soft drinks from the refrigerator to employees unloading merchandise that cost the company $8.25. Bettis' mistake was not immediately ringing the sodas through the register and paying for them with the company's petty cash. After she went back and created a receipt, as she says she was told to do, she was accused of falsifying the receipt.

Meanwhile, Nelson's audit also found that a male manager had been written up for failing to ring up batteries. But he was only issued a warning.

More than a year later, Bettis and her husband are still struggling to make ends meet. He took a $10-an-hour job with a lumber company to support the family through the pregnancy while continuing his schooling. Bettis gave birth to a healthy girl and found a job at a university, but she took more than a $10,000 pay cut and has no benefits.

"Sometimes I can't believe this really happened," Bettis says. "You have to go through these extraordinary means to make employers treat pregnant women right, even at a baby store."

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Ashley Harrell
Contact: Ashley Harrell