The question posed to a federal judge in Texas was: Is firing a woman because she wants to pump at work sexual discrimination?
Donnicia Venters, a Houston resident and mother alleges she was fired after asking for a place to pump breast milk. In the court’s ruling, U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes said it wouldn’t be illegal even if Venters and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission were correct in assuming that Houston Funding, a debt collection agency, fired her because she’d asked to pump breast milk at work.
The judge reasoned that lactation was not pregnancy-related and, as a result, “firing someone because of lactation or breast-pumping is not sex discrimination.” This reasoning is shared by other district courts but no higher-level appears court has made a ruling on this particular question.
Carrie Hoffman, a labor lawyer in Dallas says President Barack Obama’s health care law addresses breast feeding and requires employers to give new mothers a break to nurse, but it doesn’t specifically protect women from being fired if they ask to do so. This appears to be a weird limbo which leaves new mothers confused about their rights. “The intent was to get nursing mothers back to work but allow them to continue to nurse because of the health benefits associated with nursing,” Hoffman said. “But even so, that law doesn’t have anything to do with terminating the employee … it just requires break time. There appears to be a [loop]hole.”
In this particular event, Obama’s new law was not in effect when Venters alleges she was illegally terminated. Her story began in December 2008, when she took maternity leave and gave birth to her now 3-year-old daughter, Shiloh. At least twice during her leave, Venters told her direct supervisor, Robert Fleming, she wanted to pump milk while on her break at work and asked him to get permission from their boss, Vice President Harry Cagle.
“He was completely fine about it,” she said of Fleming. “I never got an answer back and I didn’t think anything of it.” In a signed affidavit provided to the judge, Fleming said that when he told Cagle that Venters wanted to bring a breast pump to work, Cagle responded with a strong “No. Maybe she needs to stay home longer.”
Venters told the EEOC that Cagle’s “demeanor changed. He paused for a few seconds and said, ‘I’m sorry. We’ve laid you off.'” “I didn’t think I would get the boot for it,” Venters told The Associated Press. “It didn’t really make sense to me.”
The company issued a statement that it would comply with new laws protecting women’s rights to breast feed in the workplace, even though this was not the issue in the present case.