Employers that accommodate employees’ temporary disabilities should consider extending the practice to nursing mothers returning to work following maternity leave. That’s the lesson of a recent opinion from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit (Hicks v. City of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, 11th Cir., 9/7/2017) In Hicks, a City police department’s insistence that an officer return to the beat rather than to allowing her work a temporary desk job resulted in a substantial plaintiff verdict.
Last week a mother quit her job soon after returning from maternity leave because she claims her employer denied her access to a lactation room for three days (See Des Moines Register story here). Apparently, the employer had a lactation room on the premises as required by federal law. But, according to a complaint filed with the Iowa Civil Rights Commission, a company nurse told the employee she had to fill out paperwork and then wait three days before she could access the room.
The health care law signed into law on March 23, 2010 contained the requirement that employers provide nursing mothers with reasonable unpaid breaks to express breast milk, and a location other than a bathroom where they can so. Such breaks must be provided for up to one year after their child’s birth. Employers with fewer than fifty employees are exempt if the requirements “would impose an undue hardship by causing the employer significant difficulty or expense.”
With due respect to the late Paul Harvey, what is most striking about this claim is there must be a “rest of the story” out there. Most notably, the publicity relating to this event was generated by a complaint filed with the Iowa Civil Rights Commission. However, the requirements governing breaks and locations for breastfeeding mothers are contained in the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). If an employee is seeking to enforce the FLSA, there is no need to file a complaint with the ICRC. In fact, that state agency has no jurisdiction over FLSA claims. Perhaps there are other issues involves with this employee, but these allegations were simply the most sensational and likely to generate publicity. It did not take too long for this story to circulate on the internet.
The other interesting aspect of the story is the publicity itself. Normally, Iowa Civil Rights Act complaints are not made public at the time they are filed, unless the filing complainant issues a press release or otherwise takes action to make it public. This is obviously an important concern for new mothers returning to work, given the large number of comments posted about the story on the Register’s website. Indeed, the employer , Nationwide Advantage Mortgage, had a spokeperson issue a statement to refute the former employee’s claims.
Sometimes, plaintiff’s attorneys use adverse publicity about a tangential issue as a hammer to persuade an employer to resolve a case quickly rather than defend it on the merits. Obviously, we don’t know if that is what is going on here, but the newspaper story certainly left many unanswered questions.