Sarah Fillmore with her son Cooper , to go with Clay Lucas story on unfair dismissal
Photo Pat Scala The Age
Wednesday the 26th of June 2013

Sarah Fillmore with her son Cooper. Photo: Pat Scala

A Melbourne financial advice firm faces a discrimination claim after it sacked a new mother while she was on maternity leave, and refused to let her return to work part-time.

The case, lodged last week, comes after the federal government announced a new inquiry into workplace discrimination against pregnant women and women returning from maternity leave.

The case will focus on the, at times, brutal financial services world, which a workplace academic said had a track record of cases of pregnancy discrimination.

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Carnbrea is a wealth management company based in South Melbourne. It employed Sarah Fillmore as a client services manager in April 2012; Ms Fillmore began maternity leave in December that year, and gave birth to son Cooper soon after.

According to her application to the Fair Work Commission, Ms Fillmore had agreed to return to work either full-time or part-time in mid-2013.

After being asked by the company to put in writing a request to return to work initially part-time, Ms Fillmore wrote at the end of May to request to work three days a week from July, with a view to returning to full-time work within six months.

Two days later, Carnbrea wrote back terminating Ms Fillmore, telling her the firm never agreed to her returning part-time, and saying it did not suit the company.

The letter finished by asking Ms Fillmore to return her office keys and security pass within a week.

Carnbrea refused to discuss the case with Fairfax Media. It referred queries to its lawyer, Ross Millen, who said the company would not discuss the matter in the media.

Ms Fillmore, who has more than a decade's experience in financial services, is seeking compensation for lost wages and distress.

"I've seen it happen to other women in my industry," she said. "Not so blatantly, but I've seen women, when they've had a baby, be pushed out of their roles."

Ms Fillmore said she was discussing the case publicly because she did not want other women to suffer the same fate. She said she had come to realise pregnancy discrimination was more common than many realised, with friends saying similar things had happened to them.

Maurice Blackburn employment law principal Josh Bornstein is acting for Ms Fillmore. He said Carnbrea had terminated Ms Fillmore despite having assured her of a flexible return-to-work plan.

"This is a brazen breach of a prominent and basic workplace law [and] quite a brutal and bizarre way to treat someone," he said. 

On Saturday, it was revealed the Australian Human Rights Commission would hold a national inquiry into discrimination against pregnancy at work and women returning after parental leave.

Sara Charlesworth, from South Australia University's Centre for Work + Life, said Ms Fillmore's case was "more common than people take for granted. The number of women who have gone on parental leave and everything is fine … and then that changes - it is a serious problem."

But pregnancy discrimination was an international problem, she said.

"This is not just an Australian issue. It's becoming more prevalent - and is going on despite the fact that we are supposed to have evolved, because of the increase of women in the workforce," she said.