A former top aide to Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar who was terminated last week is calling foul, saying she believes she was wrongly fired for being pregnant.
Kristie Small, who has worked on Capitol Hill for more than a decade, says that officially the Texas congressman fired her over issues with her job performance as his deputy chief of staff. But Small told CNN on Thursday – and has recently brought an official complaint to the Office of Compliance that handles employee rights and workplace laws on Capitol Hill – that issues of her job performance had first been brought up to her only after when she started discussing maternity leave and her pregnancy.
“I’m 100% positive that is why I got fired,” Small told CNN in a phone interview. “I think that is a bad state of affairs when someone in his position can be so brazen and so bold to do something like this.”
Small had only worked for Cuellar for a short time, just four months. She been hired in June of this year and soon after she discovered she was pregnant with her second child, which she described as a surprise but welcome pregnancy.
Cuellar’s office would not comment the circumstances of Small’s firing, emphasizing in a statement provided to CNN that they believe all actions taken with her were in compliance with law and House Rules.
“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,” Cuellar’s office said in a statement. “All actions taken with respect to Ms. Small’s employment were in compliance with the law and House Rules.”
In early August – when she was between 12-14 weeks pregnant – Small says she informed Cuellar that she was pregnant. She sat down with him in his office to share the news with him, showing him her sonogram, she said.
She followed up with an email to the congressman on August 8 about a week after that to lay out her upcoming doctor’s appointments and lay out plans for her maternity leave, offered by his office under the employee handbook.
The congressman responded, according to Small, that the two needed to discuss the 90-day probationary period for new hires.
Small was not aware and never informed that employees of his were placed on a 90-day probationary period, nor was this outlined in the new employee handbook. And at that point, Small had already exceeded the 90-day mark.
“I was doing an excellent job and then these problems did not start to occur until the email when I asked him to go over his maternity leave policy,” Small says, alleging that the congressman “made up” the policy.
Still, she says she set up meetings with the congressman to discuss her performance – during which in early September he expressed that she had a good attitude, was doing a good job, but needed to help the press team more and also learn more about his legislative positions. They were to meet again in another 30 days.
On October 16, Small says the congressman called her while he was in his district in Texas to tell her she had been fired, citing that in his opinion the issues had not been resolved.
But to Small, those reasons were an excuse, and insufficient.
“He didn’t have anything to say and kind of just stumbled over his words. And then just informed me of my termination, said to me to pack my things and turn in your stuff and thank you for your service,” she said.
Sara Blackwell, Small’s lawyer, tells CNN that they believe it was clear she was being fired for reasons other than work related reasons that were claimed, saying that it was abrupt and unexpected given that she had not been made aware of any work-related problems or mishaps prior to Small informing the congressman of her pregnancy. Small says she never got any negative feedback from him before then, nor had she received any negative feedback from her former bosses within her time on Capitol Hill.
Small’s attorney has filed a complaint with the Office of Compliance, the official body which handles workplace issues on Capitol Hill, kicking off the long and often arduous process. The process, long criticized in the wake of the #metoo movement on Capitol Hill, is set up by the Congressional Accountability Act. The House and Senate have each passed legislation to change the CAA to change the rules that govern how workplace complaints and made and handled on Capitol Hill – but no final legislation has been passed yet.
Small says that beyond the long process she and her family are facing they are now facing a financial struggle ahead, as they were formerly a two-income household. They are figuring out if they need to sell a car to make sure they can stay in the house they brought just a year ago, and she’ll be dropped from her insurance later this month.
Small’s case was first reported in The Washington Post.