Seems like a no-brainer, right? Well, a Texas District Court judge did not think so, so the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals had to step in and set him straight in Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Houston Funding II, Ltd.
Back in February 2012, a Texas federal judge held that a woman who claimed that she was fired for seeking to use a breast pump at work had no viable claim under Title VII‘s prohibition against discrimination based upon pregnancy, childbirth or a related medical condition. He dismissed her claims on summary judgment stating that “lactation is not pregnancy, childbirth, or a related medical condition,” therefore, “firing someone because of lactation or breast-pumping is not discrimination.” Needless to say, the opinion caused an uproar and resulted in the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) filing an appeal with the Fifth Circuit.
The EEOC explained that “lactation discrimination” violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”) as amended by the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (“PDA”) because lactation is a medical condition related to pregnancy. Furthermore, the disparate treatment on the basis of breastfeeding, an inherently female function, constitutes “the essence of sex discrimination” under Title VII. As stated in the EEOC’s appellate brief, “[l]actation is a female-specific function. Thus, firing a female worker because she is lactating (i.e., producing and/or expressing breast milk) imposes a burden on that female worker that a comparable male employee simply could never suffer. That is the essence of sex discrimination.”
The Fifth Circuit agreed with the EEOC and explained that a dismissal of a female employee motivated by the fact that she is lactating “clearly imposes upon women a burden that male employees need not – indeed, could not – suffer.” The Court held that “lactation is a related medication condition to pregnancy for purposes of the PDA,” and thus, cannot be used as a reason to fire or discriminate against an employee.
Additional Protections for Breastfeeding Mothers in Workplace
The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (“Affordable Care Act”), which amended Section 7 of the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”), requires employers to provide reasonable break time for employees to express breast milk for nursing children for one year after a child’s birth. The Act also requires employers “to provide a place, other than a bathroom, that is shielded from view and free from intrusion from coworkers and the public, which can be used by employees to express breast milk.” More details about this requirements can be found at the Department of Labor website here.
Texas does not have a similar statute. However, Texas Health Code §165.002 (1995) authorizes a woman to breastfeed her child in any location, which would include a work place, and Texas Health Code §165.003 et seq. provide for the use of a “mother-friendly” designation for businesses who have policies supporting worksite breastfeeding. (HB 340) The law provides for a worksite breastfeeding demonstration project and requires the Department of Health to develop recommendations supporting worksite breastfeeding (HB 359), which can be found at www.texasmotherfriendly.org.
Finally, the EEOC provides its Caregiver Best Practices Guidance (2011) for employers, in which it explains what employers can do above and beyond what is required by federal law in order to avoid discrimination claims and create a productive work environment.
BOTTOM LINE: In the day and age when women make up 46.9% of the total labor force, and 51.5% of management, professional, and related positions, and when 55.8% of all mothers with children under the age of 1 are in the labor force, employers can no longer afford to ignore pregnancy-related issues in the workplace and need to familiarize themselves with the relevant law or face unpleasant consequences.
Leiza Dolghih is a partner at Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith LLP in Dallas, Texas and a Co-Chair of the firm’s Trade Secrets and Non-Compete Disputes national practice. His practice includes commercial, intellectual property and employment litigation. You can contact her directly at Leiza.Dolghih@LewisBrisbois.com or (214) 722-7108.