For many new moms returning to work after the birth of a child, pumping breast-milk is considered to be a necessary evil. Necessary because pumping ensures that these mothers’ babies can continue to experience the many benefits of breast-milk, and helps the mothers to maintain their milk supplies, relieves painful engorgement, and prevents potentially serious medical conditions like mastitis. Evil because, well, it is not exactly fun to do, especially if the workplace is not supportive. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control reports that full-time work for new mothers is “significantly associated with lower rates of breastfeeding initiation and shorter duration,” due primarily to workplace barriers such as “a lack of flexibility for milk expression in the work schedule, lack of accommodations to pump or store breast-milk, concerns about support from employers and colleagues, and real or perceived low milk supply.” Click here to view CDC's report.
One mother recently faced with this predicament is Donnicia Venters, who alleged in a federal lawsuit that her employer fired her while she was on maternity leave when she inquired about using a back room in the office to pump milk upon her return from leave. The EEOC brought suit on Ms. Venters’ behalf in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas, asserting sex discrimination claims against the employer under Title VII. See EEOC v. Houston Funding II, Ltd., Case No. 4:11-cv-02442 (S.D. Tex.). Title VII makes it “an unlawful employment practice for an employer . . . to discharge any individual . . . because of such individual’s . . . sex.” 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a)(1). The Pregnancy Discrimination Act amended Title VII to state that “‘because of sex’ … include[s] … because of … pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions ….” 42 U.S.C. §2000e(k).
United States District Judge Lynn N. Hughes (who is a male, for the record) recently granted summary judgment in favor of the employer, ruling that “[f]iring someone because of lactation or breast-pumping is not sex discrimination.” In a rather conclusory fashion, the court reasoned that “lactation is not pregnancy, childbirth, or a related medical condition” and that any “pregnancy-related conditions” experienced by Ms. Venters ended on the day she gave birth to her daughter. To see the full opinion click here.
In the few short days since it has been issued, this ruling has garnered much critical attention. As many commentators have pointed out—and this seems quite obvious—only women can lactate, and lactation does not usually happen in the absence of childbirth. The ruling therefore strikes many as illogical—how can firing someone for lactation or breast-pumping not be because of sex or a childbirth-related medical condition? The EEOC has stated that it is considering whether to appeal the ruling. The issue therefore remains far from settled. It remains to be seen whether the appellate court, or other judges who might be faced with this issue, will come to a different conclusion than Judge Hughes did.
Pumping mothers also have a new legal protection that Ms. Venters did not have when she gave birth to her baby in 2008. Effective March 23, 2010, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (also known as the Healthcare Reform Act) amended the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) to require employers to provide a nursing mother break time to pump. Specifically, covered employers must provide reasonable break time for an employee to express breast-milk for her nursing child for one year after the child’s birth, each time the employee has need to express milk. See 29 U.S.C. § 207(r). Employers must also provide a place, other than a bathroom, that is shielded from view and free from intrusion from coworkers and the public, which may be used by an employee to express breast-milk. Id.
There are, of course, several limitations to this protection. The FLSA amendment does not require employers to pay employees for such break time. Id. The requirements also do not apply to employers with less than 50 employees, if such requirements would impose an undue hardship by causing the employer significant difficulty or expense when considered in relation to the size, financial resources, nature, or structure of the employer’s business. Id.
Under this amendment, nursing mothers who experience “lactation discrimination” in the workplace might now have a remedy—albeit a limited one—under the FLSA. The FLSA makes it illegal for an employer to “discharge or in any other manner discriminate against any employee because such employee has filed any complaint or instituted or caused to be instituted any proceeding under or related to [the FLSA].” 29 U.S.C. § 215. In most jurisdictions, this provision applies to any employee who complains about an FLSA violation, either formally to an administrative agency, or informally to the employer. A nursing mother who complains about her employer’s failure to provide reasonable break time for her to pump would therefore be protected by this anti-retaliation provision in the FLSA. As the language of this anti-retaliation provision makes clear, however, the employee must actually complain to the employer in order to be protected. Thus, if Judge Hughes’ opinion turns out to be the prevailing view and lactation is not protected under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act or Title VII, there is still a gap in protection, even with the FLSA amendment. Nursing mothers who are simply fired for pumping at work before ever complaining about an employer’s FLSA violation would have no remedy. In this scenario, a legislative amendment to Title VII, or legislation at the state level, might be the only potential source of protection.
In fact, many states have attempted to fill the gaps in protection for nursing mothers by passing their own legislation. A complete list of state laws enacted to protect breastfeeding can be found here. Of the states where Stoel Rives has offices, California, Oregon, and Minnesota each have laws that require employers to provide breaks for women to breastfeed or pump. To the extent these state laws are more robust than the FLSA amendment, they are not preempted. see 29 U.S.C. § 207(r)(4).
A recent decision from the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) reminds employers of their affirmative duty to engage in an interactive process once an employee raises a medical condition and requests some change to their work environment to accommodate it. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and the Rehabilitation Act at issue in Harden v. Social Security Administration, protect an employee from discrimination based on a disability, where the employee can otherwise perform his or her job with a reasonable accommodation. Tips for the interactive process are provided below, and next week we will go through a “hypothetical.”
In Harden, a claims assistant who was frequently late notified the SSA about her depression and general anxiety which were causing her problems sleeping and functioning early in the morning. She requested approval to arrive between 9:00 and 9:30 a.m., rather than between 7:00 and 9:00 a.m. like other employees, or else to use leave rather than leave without pay or discipline. The claims assistant supplied the SSA some medical documentation, but the SSA found that the documentation did not show that her medical condition kept her from getting to work before 9:00 a.m. The SSA denied the employee’s request for a modified schedule, and disciplined her when she was again tardy.
Based on information about the employee’s medical condition that came out during the EEOC complaint process, the EEOC found that the SSA engaged in discrimination. The claims assistant had a disability that could have been reasonably accommodated with a modified schedule. The EEOC disagreed with the SSA’s argument that medical documentation provided during the complaint process was irrelevant to the SSA’s decision to deny the modified schedule and discipline the employee.
What does Harden teach us? Disability discrimination laws place affirmative duties on employers to engage in a meaningful process after an employee raises a medical condition. Do not cut short the interactive process because the facts will come out eventually. This 4-step process provides a helpful framework for an ADA request.
1. Get the facts: What is the medical condition? Get documentation from the employee’s doctor if necessary (with an appropriate release), including any limitations and potential accommodations. Allow the employee or doctor to provide additional information if you are not satisfied. What is this employee’s job? Identify the essential functions of her position. Is the employee performing the job, except for reasons related to her disability?
2. Decide whether the employee is eligible for an accommodation: Based on the facts, is the employee qualified for the job? Can he or she perform the essential functions of the job, with or without an accommodation? Determine whether the individual has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity. Is the employee regarded as having such impairment?
3. Have an interactive dialogue with the employee about an accommodation: Ask the employee what he or she wants. Quite frequently, this simple communication can result in a practical, cost-effective solution that works for everyone involved. Can the employee do the essential functions of the job with the employee’s proposed accommodation? Identify other accommodations that may work, and consider the effectiveness of each proposed accommodation. Discuss the cost and burden of each effective accommodation and assess whether it would be an “undue hardship.”
4. Put the accommodation into action: Document the dialogue with employee. Choose and implement an accommodation. Document the expectations on all sides. Inform others of the accommodation, only to the limited extent they must know (such as a supervisor). Ensure confidentiality at all times, and maintain a separate confidential file for the employee’s medical documentation. Reassess the effectiveness of the accommodation after a time.
Retaliation claims are increasing at an alarming pace. Not only have these claims tripled in number within the last two decades, they now exceed race discrimination as the leading claim filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Click here to see EEOC statistics.
Why the startling trend? First, Congress has gone to great lengths to protect employees’ rights to speak out against unlawful employment practices. Protections are regularly included in new laws, such as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, the Patient Protection and Affordable Health Care Act of 2010, and the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010.
Second, courts have adopted a broad definition of what constitutes retaliation and who should be protected. An employee must prove she engaged in a protected activity (like reporting harassment) and suffered an adverse employment action as a result (like being passed over for a promotion). An employer may ultimately defeat the harassment claim, but still face liability for retaliation. Third parties also may be protected from retaliation. For instance, in a recent United States Supreme Court decision the court found that the fiance of an employee who files a discrimination complaint is protected from retaliation under Title VII.
Third, jurors understand retaliation claims because they involve natural reactions to being accused of something awful, like sexual harassment. Jurors know how natural it is for the accused to have negative feelings after such an accusation, and at the same time jurors will sympathize with an employee who allegedly suffers for rocking the boat by making a complaint.
So what’s an employer to do?
- Start with a clear anti-retaliation policy and train employees on it. Include an outlet for employees to raise retaliation concerns.
- Counsel supervisors to be vigilant in their efforts to be objective, to exercise restraint, and to avoid knee-jerk reactions, and educate supervisors on how to spot situations where retaliation among co-workers is a risk.
- Limit retaliatory behavior between employees by limiting the number of people who know about employee complaints.
- Establish consistent processes that will catch subtle or unintended retaliation, so that employment decisions are based on legitimate business-related factors.
- Timely investigate and address any appearance or allegation of retaliation.
This week President Obama announced that he would make recess appointments to fill vacancies on the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The move allows the White House to bypass the Senate confirmation process, which promised to be extremely contentious.
The appointments will add two Democratic members to the NLRB: Craig Becker and Mark Pearce. Both appointees were strongly opposed by Republicans because of their anticipated pro-labor viewpoints. Becker, a labor law professor, has been associate general counsel for the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) since 1990 and has also served as an AFL-CIO staff counsel since 2004. Pearce is a partner with the firm of Creighton, Pearce, Johnsen & Giroux in Buffalo, New York, where he represents unions and employees. President Obama's recess appointments do not include Republican nominee Brian E. Hayes, the Republicans' labor policy director for the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, but Hayes' Senate confirmation is not expected to encounter any significant roadblocks.
The EEOC appointments will bring the agency up to a full compliment of five directors. The new appointments include: Jacqueline Berrien as EEOC chair, Chai Feldblum and Victoria Lipnic. Berrien has served as associate director of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc. (LDF) in New York since 2004 where she has worked on voting rights and political participation issues. Feldblum, a Georgetown University law professor, played a leading role in drafting the original Americans with Disabilities Act and more recently worked on the ADA Amendments Act. She has also worked on the proposed Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would ban employment bias based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Lipnic is a lawyer with Seyfarth Shaw in Washington, D.C. and served in President George W. Bush's administration as assistant secretary of labor for employment standards from 2002 until 2009. In addition, EEOC supervisory attorney P. David Lopez will appointed to the post of EEOC general counsel.
What will these appointments mean for employers? First, expect to see more rule changes. Both the EEOC and the NLRB have for some time operated without quorums, meaning that the agencies have not been able to take on any controversial cases or make significant rule changes. Now that they have enough members, expect a flurry of activity from both bodies. For the NLRB in particular, this may mean reversals of many pro-employer decisions made during the Bush years. Second, expect both agencies to get a lot more employee-friendly. President Obama's appointments will appease labor unions and employee advocates who adamantly supported his campaign but until now have not received much in return. Those groups expect to get a return on their investment, and these appointments will go along way towards making that happen.
Today the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) releases new regulations that will define employers' "reasonable factors other than age" or "RFOA" defense under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA). The new regulations would reflect two Supreme Court cases interpreting the RFOA defense: Smith v. City of Jackson (2005) and Meacham v. Knolls Atomic Power Laboratories (2008). Click here to read the EEOC's Proposed ADEA Regulations.
The Supreme Court held in Smith that employment practices having a disparate adverse impact on workers age 40 and older may violate the ADEA. The Court in Meacham then ruled that when a plaintiff proves such an adverse impact, employers have the burden of proving that the practice that caused the adverse impact was based on reasonable factors other than age.” Since Smith and Meacham, however, there have not been any interpretive regulations under the ADEA to guide employers on the RFOA defense.
The proposed rule defines a "reasonable factor other than age" as "one that is objectively reasonable when viewed from the position of a reasonable employer (i.e., a prudent employer mindful of its responsibilities under the ADEA) under like circumstances. To establish the RFOA defense under the new rules, an employer must show that the employment practice was both (1) reasonably designed to further or achieve a legitimate business purpose and (2) administered in a way that reasonably achieves that purpose in light of the particular facts and circumstances that were known, or should have been known, to the employer. The rule also provides a non-exhaustive list of six factors relevant to determining whether an employment practice is "reasonable":
- Whether the employment practice and the manner of its implementation are common business practices;
- The extent to which the factor is related to the employer’s stated business goal;
- The extent to which the employer took steps to define the factor accurately and to apply the factor fairly and accurately (e.g., training, guidance, instruction of managers);
- The extent to which the employer took steps to assess the adverse impact of its employment practice on older workers;
- The severity of the harm to individuals within the protected age group, in terms of both the degree of injury and the numbers of persons adversely affected, and the extent to which the employer took preventive or corrective steps to minimize the severity of the harm, in light of the burden of undertaking such steps; and
- Whether other options were available and the reasons the employer selected the option it did.
The EEOC's proposal also explains that the RFOA defense turns on the facts and circumstances of each particular situation and whether the employer acted prudently in light of those facts.
An employer who is considering a change in employment practices -- such as a layoff, change in employment qualifications, etc. -- should examine the impact of the change to determine whether it may create an adverse impact based on age. If it appears that it may, the employer should then apply the EEOC's six factors to see if it can adequately defend the change as based on reasonable factors other than age. If the change does not appear to pass each of the EEOC's six factors, the employer may want to consider altering the change to reduce the impact or abandoning it altogether.
Yesterday the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision that allows the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to continue investigating allegations of employment discrimination, and even to issue subpoenas to employers, after issuing a right-to-sue letter to the employee who filed the initial complaint. Click here to read the Ninth Circuit decision in Federal Express Corp. v. EEOC.
In order to file a lawsuit under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, an employee must first file a complaint of discrimination with either the EEOC or an analogous state agency, a process known as "exhausting administrative remedies." Only after the EEOC issues a "right-to-sue letter" may the employee then file a lawsuit. It is not uncommon for an employee to file a complaint with the EEOC and withdraw it almost immediately, obtain the right-to-use letter and file a lawsuit, all before the EEOC has had a chance to investigate. In Federal Express, the employee did just that in order to join a pending class action lawsuit. The employer expected the EEOC to drop its investigation, but instead EEOC continued to investigate and issued a subpoena to the employer.
The Ninth Circuit enforced the subpoena, writing: "By continuing to investigate a charge of systemic discrimination even after the charging party has filed suit, the EEOC is pursuing its obligation to serve the public interest." The Ninth Circuit's decision is in line with a decision from the Third Circuit, but contrary to decisions from the Fifth, Seventh and Tenth Circuits. The Supreme Court will often take a case like Federal Express to resolve such splits between the circuit courts, but declined to do so in this case. As a result, the EEOC's investigatory powers will continue to vary depending on where a complaint is made.
Given the Supreme Court's ruling in Federal Express, employers can no longer safely assume that the EEOC will drop its investigation once it issues a right-to-sue letter. The EEOC may choose to continue investigating charges of discrimination, especially in cases involving allegations of systemic or widespread violations of anti-discrimination law. Employers (at least those in the Ninth and Third Circuits) should be prepared to comply with EEOC investigations even after the right-to-sue letter has issued.
The Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA) takes effect November 21, 2009. Is your workplace ready? Employers will soon be required to post a notice stating that they do not discriminate on the basis of genetic information, under proposed regulations interpreting GINA.
If you don't already have one, click here to download the full "EEO is the Law" poster, which describes all of the Federal laws prohibiting job discrimination based on race, color, sex, national origin, religion, age, equal pay, disability and genetic information. If you already have a copy of "EEO is the Law," then you can download and print the "EEO is the Law Supplement," which contains GINA information. (If you don't want to print it yourself, or if you need the poster in Arabic, Chinese or Spanish, click here to order a copy from the EEOC.)
What else should employers do to prepare for GINA? Here's a short, non-exhaustive list of things you can do to get ready:
- Add appropriate language to your EEO and anti-discrimination policies stating that you do not discriminate on the basis of genetic information;
- Review your employment applications and employee questionnaires to make sure you are not intentionally or inadvertently requesting information about an applicant’s/employee’s family medical history;
- If you need to get information about a family member’s illness for purposes of determining whether a request for leave qualifies for Family and Medical Leave Act or state law leave coverage, make sure it is limited to only what you need to know to make the determination;
- Determine whether incoming medical information you receive on an employee contains genetic information (defined as: genetic tests of an individual or his/her family members; the manifestation of a disease or disorder in family members of an individual, genetic services and participation in genetic research by an individual or his/her family member) and if so, maintain and treat the information as you would a confidential medical record for ADA purposes – i.e., maintained in a separate confidential medical file with proper limitations on disclosure.
- Make sure appropriate policies and procedures are in place to prevent inadvertent disclosure of genetic information when responding to a litigation discovery request, like a subpoena. If you require a court order compelling disclosure before releasing the information, this should protect you.
- If you are a self-insured entity, make sure that you do not request or require or use purchased genetic testing or information for purposes of underwriting or to determine an individual’s contribution/premium amounts. Note that you can use genetic test results for purposes of making a determination regarding payment, though.
- Also note that genetic information is included as “protected health information” for HIPAA purposes and should be treated accordingly.
The H1N1 virus (aka "swine flu") continues to spread. Is your workplace prepared? Are your policies and procedures legally compliant? In order to help employers, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) updated its guidance for employers titled "Pandemic Preparedness in the Workplace and the Americans with Disabilities Act." (Click title to download). The EEOC guidance answers several common questions relating to H1N1 and compliance with the ADA. For example:
- May an employer send employees home if they display influenza-like symptoms during a pandemic? Yes. Employees who become ill with flu-like symptoms at work should leave the workplace. Directing such workers to go home is not a disability-related action if the illness is akin to seasonal influenza or the 2009 spring/summer H1N1 virus.
- How much information may an employer request from employees who report feeling ill at work or who call in sick? Employers may ask employees if they are experiencing flu-like symptoms, such as fever or chills and a cough or sore throat. Employers must maintain all information about employee illness as a confidential medical record in compliance with the ADA.
- May an employer require employees to wear face masks or gloves, or gowns to reduce the transmission of the H1N1 or flu virus? Yes. An employer may require employees to wear personal protective equipment during a pandemic.
- May an employer require its employees to adopt infection-control practices, such as regular hand washing, at the workplace? Yes. Requiring regular hand washing, coughing and sneezing etiquette, and proper tissue usage and disposal, does not implicate the ADA.
The guidance addresses these and many other common H1N1 questions. In short, the EEOC is directing employers not to panic, to take the H1N1 outbreak seriously, but also to treat it no differently than the regular seasonal flu -- at least from an employment law perspective. For more information, consult the EEOC guidance or contact your employment law attorney.
Congress did not intend for the ADA Amendments Act (ADAAA) to be retroactive, the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled yesterday, and applied pre-ADAAA law to dismiss an employment discrimination claim. Click here to read the court's decision in Lytes v. DC Water and Sewer Authority.
Congress passed the ADAAA in 2008 and the new law became effective January 1, 2009. The ADAAA significantly expanded the definition of "disabled" under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The Lytes court reviewed the legislative history of the ADAAA, and could not find in that history any indication that Congress intended the law to apply retroactively. The court also noted that Congress signaled its intend that the law not apply retroactively when it gave the ADAAA a specific effective date.
The DC Circuit joins the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, which also ruled in EEOC v. Agro Distribution, LLC that the ADAAA is not retroactive. Notably, the Department of Labor has also taken the position that the law should not apply retroactively. And, at least for now, it appears that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission agrees.
Lytes and Agro Distribution are important cases for employers defending ADA claims; they make clear that for claims arising before January 1, 2009, pre-ADAAA standards of what constitutes a "disability" are likely to apply. For more information on the ADAAA, click here for the Stoel Rives World of Employment's ADAAA coverage.
Recognizing that severance agreements are becoming more and more prevailant in the down economy, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) yesterday issued a new technical assistance document titled Understanding Waivers of Discrimination Claims in Employee Severance Agreements (click on the title to access the document). The new document is intended to help both employers and employees navigate the complexities of waivers in severance agreements.
Of particular interest is the EEOC's guidance regarding the Older Workers Benefit Protection Act, which places certain requirements on waivers of age discrimination claims by employees age 40 and older, including a 21 day period to consider the agreement and a seven day period to revoke acceptance. Also of note is the EEOC's admonition that signing a severance agreement and accepting payment to waive discrimination claims does not prevent an employee from then filing a charge of discrimination with the Commission or a similar state agency.
Employers should review their existing severance agreements in light of the EEOC's new guidance, as this document provides insight into how both the Commission and courts will review such agreements and how employees might find ways to avoid their waiver obligations.
The Obama Administration has released its fiscal year 2010 budget request. Among the items are several increases for the federal agencies that oversee labor and employment matters. Here are some highlights:
- $104.5 billion to the Department of Labor, an increase of 10 percent, to increase its staff and enforcement activity.
- $283 million for the National Labor Relations Board, an increase of 7.9 percent.
- $267 million for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, an increase of 6.6 percent, to increase staffing.
- $145 million of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, an increase of 18 percent.
- $112 million to the Department of Homeland Security for the E-Verify program.
Assuming they are passed by Congress, these increases reverse a long trend under the Bush Administration to cut funding to the federal agencies that enforce labor and employment laws. Employers can expect increased enforcement of those laws by the federal government in the years to come.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has issued two helpful resources for employers coping with the Swine Flu outbreak. First, the Commission has issued this technical assistance document on ADA-Compliant Employer Preparedness For the H1N1 Flu Virus. It answers basic questions about workplace preparation strategies for the 2009 H1N1 flu virus (swine flu) that are compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
Second, the Commission has issued this notice on Employment Discrimination and the 2009 H1N1 Flu Virus, reminding employers that the Swine Flu outbreak is not an excuse to discriminate against employees and potential employees on the basis of disability or national origin. Of course, you didn't need that reminder because you read the Stoel Rives World of Employment, right?
According to the Wall Street Journal, discrimination filings with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) went up 15 percent in 2008 compared to 2007, and age discrimination suits in particular showed a dramatic 29 percent increase over the previous year. Click here to read the WSJ Article.
The conventional wisdom is that discrimination claims go up in a down economy -- more people lose their jobs through layoffs or heightened performance standards, and a certain percentage of those affected will file discrimination claims. That doesn't necessarily explain the spike in certain types of claims, however, such as the recent increase in age discrimination claims.
So why the spike in claims? It could be as simple as an aging workforce, but we suspect more is at work. In a troubled economy, many employers focus their layoffs on more highly-compensated employees, and that can have a greater impact on older workers (while specifically targeting older workers for layoff is unlawful, it may be lawful to select higher-paid workers). Also, older workers have a harder time finding replacement employment, and that might lead them to file claims against their former employers rather than move on.
These are challenging times for employers, and now more than ever it pays to be careful when conducting layoffs and terminations.