Good morning! Today on The Feronia Project, we’re featuring a guest post from Kevin Sanderson, an employment attorney, talking about discrimination against breastfeeding in the workplace – and the efforts that the federal government is making to make it stop.
There has been an angry reaction to news of a recent U.S. southern Texas federal judge’s decision to dismiss a discrimination case brought by the Federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) on behalf of Donnicia Venters, who was not allowed to return to her job after giving birth, after she asked her employer about accommodations for breastfeeding in the workplace.
Ms. Venters left work December 1, 2009. She gave birth on the 10th. She suffered an infection from her caesarian birth that delayed her return to work and was not cleared until February 16 to return to work by her doctor. She told her employer that day she wanted to come back. She was fired February 10. The letter informing her of the termination was not sent until February 20. The judge did note that Ms. Venters spoke with co-workers for a total of 115 minutes during a 30 day period while she was recovering from complication, She had not yet been cleared by her doctor to return to work but consistently told co-workers she wanted to and would return to work.
Pregnancy discrimination is rampant. So is family responsibility discrimination, which is what I believe this ultimately was. This can happen to anyone: a spouse, parent, child, etc. who needs to care for an immediate loved one but also needs to be able to stay employed over the long term. I think the “mistake” this 6 year employee made was informing her employer she was going to continue to be a “problem” after already taking medical leave for the pregnancy. (This is worth highlighting as any complication before or after a pregnancy or any other health related issue can easily cause a person to miss more than the twelve weeks a company may be mandated to hold the job open for the employee.)
The EEOC should be applauded for filing this case in the first place. It appears they were trying to use this as a test case to establish precedence for the right to breastfeed in the workplace and the results backfired. EEOC attempts to do good work with what resources they have, but they are notoriously and intentionally underfunded. (Remember, this is the agency Ronald Regan appointed Clarence Thomas to prior to his appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court by George H.W. Bush – and it’s also where he worked with Anita Hill.)
Many people probably don’t realize the EEOC brings very few court cases compared to the large number of charges of discrimination they receive from employees every year. They use their limited resources to go after the largest employers (such as Walmart) and rarely take cases on behalf of only one employee. They must have felt this case was important enough to do so.
There is reason to believe that the EEOC wanted to highlight this topic. They recently held a public hearing with a panel of experts in D.C. on Unlawful Discrimination Against Pregnant Workers and Workers with Caregiving Responsibilities. The EEOC stated in its related press release that “Despite Laws, Guidance and Willingness to Work, Many Pregnant Women and Caregivers are Denied Job Opportunities, Workplace Modifications, Leave, and Equal Treatment.”
Kevin Sanderson is an employment attorney representing employees alleging discrimination in the workplace. He can be reached at (941) 244-0468 or at http://www.srqattorney.com.