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Landmark pregnancy discrimination case headed for appeal

The life of a working mother can be quite challenging. This statement is often uniquely true when children are very young and they are still dependant on their mothers in very primal ways. When mothers need to pump breast milk several times over the course of a work day, finding the time, privacy and storage capabilities to do so can be a frustrating process.

However, an employer's duty to facilitate this process for lactating employees is still up for debate. Though many view an employer's refusal to provide time and privacy for pumping as pregnancy discrimination, courts are currently split on whether or not such a refusal is indeed illegal under federal law. In fact, courts are also currently split on whether or not a lactating mother's needs can serve as grounds for her dismissal.

Recently, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has advocated on behalf of a Texas woman who was dismissed after asking her employer whether she could pump her breast milk in an unused back room during the course of her workday. A federal judge ruled in February that the woman could not sue for wrongful termination, reasoning that termination due to lactation needs does not constitute sex or pregnancy-related discrimination.

Thankfully, the EEOC has appealed the ruling to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. The EEOC's argument is based on the premise that "firing a female worker because she is lactating ... imposes a burden on that female worker that a comparable male employee simply could never suffer. That is the essence of sex discrimination." In addition, the appeal asserts that the wrongful termination of the Houston mother was also a violation of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978.

Given that the Fifth Circuit's ruling could be the first on that level of federal appeals to uphold a woman's right to lactate in the workplace under Title VII, the case is being closely watched. Hopefully the court will honor the unique pregnancy-related needs of working mothers who are still lactating, for the benefit of young mothers and their infants everywhere.

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

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