Angela Ames resigned from her position at Nationwide Mutual Insurance Company just three hours after she returned from maternity leave. Upon her return, she sought access to the company’s lactation rooms and was informed that she would have to wait three days for permission to use a room. She was also told that since none of her work had been completed during her maternity leave, she would have to complete eight weeks worth of work during her first two weeks back or face discipline. When she asked her manager to help her find a place to pump milk, the manager told Ames, “You know, I think it’s best that you go home to be with your babies,” handed Ames a piece of paper and a pen, and dictated what she should write in her resignation letter.
Ames resigned, and both a federal trial court and a federal appeals court threw out Ames’ discrimination case. These decisions relied in large part on the fact that Ames failed to stay in her job and fight the treatment she was receiving. The trial court, however, also concluded that lactation is not a pregnancy-related condition – and therefore not protected by the Pregnancy Discrimination Act – because some men can lactate. When the Supreme Court recently refused to hear Ames’ case, it was male lactation that attracted numerous headlines. The Supreme Court, however, was not asked to weigh in on male lactation. It was asked to consider whether the appeals court correctly assessed when an employee can hold an employer liable for forcing her to quit, and – as in the vast majority of cases that come before it – the Supreme Court declined to review the case.
In July 2014, well after the trial court issued its decision in Ames’ case, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) made clear that lactation is a pregnancy-related medical condition and that treating an employee less favorably because she is breastfeeding is therefore discrimination. Likewise, harassing an employee because of her breastfeeding is illegal if the harassment is severe or pervasive. Any workplace policy or practice that singles out breastfeeding for less favorable treatment is discrimination because, the EEOC notes, breastfeeding is a condition that only affects women. It would, for example, violate Title VII, to permit an employee to use her break time for personal reasons, but to have a policy preventing her from pumping or expressing milk during her break time.