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Woman's right to breastfeed at center of employment law case

Although women's rights in Maryland's workplaces have advanced significantly in recent decades, there is still some work to be done. Sexual harassment and discrimination based on gender, age and pregnancy have all been banned by federal employment law, however, many working women still face unique legal challenges that do not plague their male counterparts.

One area where this is evident is motherhood. Although the Pregnancy Discrimination Act prohibits employers from treating workers or job candidates unfairly on the basis of pregnancy, the law has fallen short of protecting the workplace rights of new mothers. In fact, one woman was even fired for asking to pump breast milk at work and a judge ruled in favor of the employer.

The woman in this case was on maternity leave in 2008 from a Texas debt collection agency when she called her boss to ask to use the backroom for pumping breast milk upon her return. Instead of complying, he fired her.

The woman attempted to sue the employer, accusing him of sex discrimination, but a judge ruled that lactation is not protected by anti-sex discrimination laws. Furthermore, the judge said lactation was not a pregnancy-related condition and this meant it was not covered by the Pregnancy Discrimination Act.

In at least one other state, lactation is considered a pregnancy-related condition and is covered.

The Equal Opportunity Employment Commission has since taken up the woman's case on appeal, arguing that firing a new mother for wanting to pump breast milk is the epitome of sex discrimination.

It should be noted that in 2010, the Fair Labor Standards Act was amended to require all employers to provide reasonable breaks to new mothers to pump breast milk for a nursing child. However, lactation is still not technically one of the protected classes or conditions under workplace discrimination laws, so this can lead to confusion among employers and legal professionals alike.

The outcome of this case could certainly change that. For now, when pregnant women or mothers feel that their rights are not being respected in the workplace, they often benefit from seeking an advocate.

Source: Workforce.com, " 'Great Texas Lactation Case' Debates Whether Breast-Milk Pumping Is a Pregnancy Related Condition," Matthew Heller, Aug. 23, 2012

  • Our Greenbelt, Maryland, law office handles pregnancy discrimination and other workplace discrimination claims. To learn more about our firm, take a look around our website.

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