Do women have the right to bring a breast pump to work in order to feed an infant at home? That's the question being posed to a court of appeals in Texas this month after a woman was fired from her job because she told her boss that she planned to pump breast milk at work after returning from pregnancy leave.
The case, EEOC v. Houston Funding II, Ltd., involves a debt collection firm where Donnicia Ventners was employed. Ventners had worked for Houston Funding for two years when she gave birth to her daughter in December of 2008. She had a caesarean section delivery and informed her workplace that her doctor would not allow her to return to work until an infection of her incision had healed.
When Ventners called about returning to the office following her pregnancy leave, she asked upper managers at the company whether she could pump breast milk in a private back office space. According to management at the company, however, they had already assumed that Ventners had abandoned her job and would not be returning. She was informed of this only at the time when she asked about pumping breast milk, not before.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sued the company under two different anti-discrimination statutes. The first, Title VII, is the typical statute used to protect women from sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace. The second is the Pregnancy Discrimination Act or PDA, which guarantees women the right not to be discriminated against in the workplace due to pregnancy or childbirth.
The case hit a significant roadblock at the district court level, where a judge decided that lactation discrimination was not prohibited by either Title VII or the Pregnancy Discrimination Act. According to the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, pregnancy, childbirth, and related medical conditions are all covered, but the judge ruled that after the day when Ventners gave birth, “she was no longer pregnant and her pregnancy related conditions ended.”
This ruling struck many attorneys in the area of women's rights as being very likely to be overturned on appeal. The case was dubbed “The Great Texas Lactation Case” by a number of court watchers, and on appeal the judge so far has rejected arguments that breastfeeding is not in fact a pregnancy related condition. Instead of arguing that lactation discrimination itself is acceptable, the attorneys for the debt collection firm are now arguing that discrimination due to a breast pump is not the same as discrimination due to breastfeeding or lactation itself.
Ventners's case has still not been decided on the appellate level. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has maintained throughout court proceedings that breastfeeding is clearly a pregnancy related condition, and that regular expression of breast milk with a breast pump can be necessary to prevent discomfort and significant illnesses in breastfeeding mothers. The EEOC's position is that lactation discrimination is still illegal against employers nationwide under the provisions of the PDA and Title VII.
Sources: eeoc.gov, uscourts.gov