Judge: Firing for lactation not sex discrimination

HOUSTON (AP) — A federal judge’s ruling against a Houston mother who says she was fired after asking for a place to pump breast milk has highlighted a question left unanswered by higher courts: Is firing a woman because she wants to pump at work sexual discrimination?

In her ruling, U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes said it wouldn’t be illegal even if Donnicia 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.”

Several other district courts have issued similar statements, but no higher-level appeals court has ruled on the issue, leaving many new mothers in legal limbo, said Carrie Hoffman, a labor lawyer in Dallas. She said 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.

“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 hole.”

Either way, the rule — which went into effect in the past year — would not apply to Venters.

Her story began in December 2008 when she took maternity leave. During the more than two months Venters was on leave, she kept in close contact with Houston Funding, according to cellphone records obtained by the EEOC and written statements by her former supervisors, said Tim Bowne, a senior trial attorney with the EEOC in Houston who helped litigate the case.

Venters told the EEOC that when she told Vice President Harry Cagle that she wanted to use a breast pump in a back room during breaks at work, his “demeanor then changed. He paused for a few seconds and said, ‘I’m sorry. We’ve laid you off,’” Bowne said.

“I didn’t think anything was wrong,” Venters told KHOU-TV of Houston. “I’m very shocked that it did happen. I worked very hard for that company going on three years, a lot of hours. I was a good employee, and I didn’t see it coming at all.”


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