Police officers file workplace discrimination lawsuits over breast milk

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Five New York City police officers filed suits against their department for allegedly failing to provide a space to pump breast milk, in the latest example of workplace discrimination issues affecting new moms.

According to the complaint filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the five officers often resorted to pumping milk in their vehicles. The only places available to pump at the precincts were locker rooms or bathrooms, which were often unsanitary, the report says.

Women make up roughly half of the American workforce, and 85% of them become mothers by age 45, according to a study by Pew Research. The same study says only four out of five new moms return to work after having a baby. And when they don’t resume their jobs, it’s usually because their employer didn’t accommodate their condition, the study said.

Employers may be reluctant to make changes to accommodate new mothers, but losing those employees will cost the company a lot of money. Employers spend about $47 billion annually to fill these vacant positions, Pew Research said.

“Treating mothers badly impacts your organizational goals,” says Robyn Stein DeLuca, a Stony Brook University professor and pregnancy consultant for businesses and professional women. “Litigation takes time, money and effort — things you should be investing in your business.”

Eric Sanders, the women’s attorney, says in a complaint filed last week that the employers practice was illegal because the Affordable Care Act requires employers to provide a clean, private area separate from a bathroom for women to pump milk. The Pregnancy Discrimination Act also prohibits employers from treating employees poorly because of pregnancy-related medical conditions.

“Just because you have someone who works for the police department, they don’t lose their constitutional rights,” Sanders said in an interview with the Law Journal.

New York Police Department, the city and its mayor responded to the allegations by delivering a statement on their new policy for nursing mothers. The policy said new police precincts will be designed with a private nursing room and all existing precincts must designate an empty office, or other private room, for nursing mothers.

“The NYPD is committed to providing its employees with appropriate accommodations to express breast milk privately, comfortably, and in close proximity to work. The new policy was developed in 2018,” said a NYPD spokesperson in the statement.

Chris Kuczynski, assistant legal counsel for the EEOC, says he can’t comment on pending cases, but his experience shows pregnancy discrimination is a recurring problem in the workplace. He said cases where the employer is found guilty of pregnancy-related discrimination often result in costly payouts. For instance, in 2010 pharmaceutical company Novartis was ordered to pay $175 million to plaintiffs after a boss suggested female employees shouldn’t have children if they wanted to advance within the company.

“The number of cases we see suggests that employers are not always as aware as they should be that discrimination is unlawful,” Kuczynski says. “We have resources for employers who want information on how they can stay compliant.”

Depending on the case, employers are also expected to pay for discrimination cases with their time. In addition to requiring companies to update their policies to become compliant, the EEOC may require employers to check in regularly with their organization. In these cases, the EEOC treats the company as if they’re on probation by monitoring their activity.

“It definitely behooves [employers] to take proactive measures to ensure their workplace isn’t the type of place where this happens,” Kuczynski says. “If they do, they’ll not only be following the law, they’ll have loyal employees who are committed to the work of the employer.”

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