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).
Seasons' Greetings From The California Legislature--New Laws That Apply To Employers In January 2012
The California legislature has done plenty this year to leave in employers' stockings for the holidays--new employment laws that will become effective January 1, 2012. In addition to the new California Transparency in Supply Chains Act we blogged about earlier, after some eggnog and holiday cheer, employers will need to be aware of new legal obligations that will kick in as we kick off 2012. Here are the highlights.
“Anti-Wage Theft” Law (AB 469). The Wage Theft Prevention Act of 2011 requires employers to provide non-exempt employees, at the time of hiring, a notice specifying the employee’s rate or rates of pay and the basis on which the employee’s wages are to be calculated (such as hourly, daily, piece, salary, commission, etc.). The notice must also include applicable overtime rates, allowances (if any) claimed as part of the minimum wage, the employer’s designated regular payday, the name of the employer (including any “doing business as” names), the employer’s physical and mailing addresses, and contact information for the employer’s workers’ compensation carrier. The Act also requires the employer to notify employees in writing of any changes made to any of this information within seven days of the implementation of such changes, unless the changes are reflected on a timely wage statement or other writing required by law. The Act adds an element of criminal liability by providing that any employer who willfully fails to pay wage-related Labor Commissioner orders or court judgments is guilty of a misdemeanor.
Independent Contractors (SB 459). This new law cracks down on employers who misclassify their employees as independent contractors by imposing a fine of between $5,000 and $25,000 for “willfully” misclassifying a worker as an independent contractor. “Willful misclassification” means avoiding employee status for an individual by voluntarily and knowingly misclassifying that individual as an independent contractor. The law also imposes joint and several liability for a non-attorney consultant to advise an employer to willfully misclassify someone as an independent contractor.
Background Checks (AB 22). This law prohibits most employers from obtaining or relying on consumer credit reports regarding employees or job applicants, except in certain specified limited circumstances. The law does not apply to financial institutions or entities required by law to perform credit checks. Under the new law, employers may still obtain and rely upon credit reports for managerial employees covered by the executive exemption.
Pregnancy Disability Leave (AB 592 and SB 299). This law expressly prohibits “interference” with the exercise of any right provided under the California Family Rights Act, or due to disability by pregnancy, childbirth or related medical conditions. In a provision that may prove to be preempted by ERISA, the law also requires employers to maintain and pay for health coverage under a group health plan for any eligible female employee who takes up to four months of leave due to pregnancy, childbirth or a related medical condition in a twelve month period.
Gender Identity and Expression (AB 887). Existing law prohibits discrimination and harassment based on gender. This law expands the definition of “gender” to include both gender identity (how the person sees him or herself) and gender expression (how other people view the person). Under the new law, an employee must be permitted to dress consistent with the employee’s gender identity and expression.
Genetic Information Discrimination (SB 559). Discrimination in hiring or employment based on genetic information is now unlawful under the Fair Employment and Housing Act. Genetic information is defined to include the individual employee’s genetic tests, the genetic tests of the employee’s family members, and the manifestation of a disease or disorder in the employee’s family members.
Commission Agreements (AB 1396). This law requires all contracts for employment involving commissions as a method of payment to be in writing and to set forth a method by which the commissions are required to be computed and paid. The employee must be given a signed copy, and the employer must obtain a signed receipt from each employee. This law does not take effect until January 1, 2013, so employers have a year to prepare for compliance.
Agricultural Labor Relations (SB 126). This law authorizes the California Agricultural Labor Relations Board to certify union elections when employer misconduct affects the outcomes.
In the first case of its kind before a federal circuit court, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals held recently that an employer violated Title VII for terminating a female employee who underwent in vitro fertilization treatments. To read the opinion in Hall v. Nalco Company, click here.
The employer terminated the employee citing “absenteeism—infertility treatments.” It then replaced her with a female employee who was incapable of becoming pregnant. The employee sued, alleging her termination violated the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA), which amended Title VII to include pregnancy and childbirth as bases for discrimination. The employer argued that the termination was for a gender-neutral reason: infertility. However, the Seventh Circuit held that there was evidence the termination was for her gender-specific quality of childbearing, in violation of Title VII.
Despite Hall, employment actions based on infertility are not unlawful as long as they affect men and women equally. For example, employers may lawfully exclude all treatments for infertility from their health benefit plans. Employers should beware, however, of adverse treatment of a particular infertility-related procedure that affects women only. Just as an employer may not discriminate against women because of pregnancy or maternity leave, it may not discriminate against women who undergo in vitro fertilization. For more information on avoiding pregnancy discrimination, read this fact sheet from the EEOC.
The Ninth Circuit ruled last August that AT&T violated Title VII by calculating the female plaintiffs' retirement benefits based on a system which denied them credit for pregnancy leaves taken before the 1978 by the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978, while giving credit for other types of leaves. Hard to say which way this one will go, but odds are it will be a 5-4 decision. Stay tuned.