Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Do you know? Breastfeeding at work

Today, I start what will become a weekly feature, which I am calling, “Do you know?” I have a lot of different sources from where I get ideas – recent cases, newspaper articles, other blogs, search terms, or something else that happened to catch my eye. Often, I use one of these sources to give people some general information about a specific area of employment law. For example, take a look at recent posts on FMLA intermittent leave, or meal and rest breaks under the FLSA.

Starting today, and hopefully every Tuesday from now on, I’m going to be presenting a general refresher on a different topic. Today’s topic: breastfeeding employees.

Did you know? Ohio has one of the most liberal breastfeeding laws in the country. R.C. 3781.55 provides:

A mother is entitled to breast-feed her baby in any location of a place of public accommodation wherein the mother otherwise is permitted. “Place of public accommodation” has the same meaning as in section 4112.01 of the Revised Code.

In April 2007, the Ohio Civil Rights Commission issued its first probable cause finding under this statute, against a fitness club that prohibited a member from breast-feeding her 6-month-old son in its daycare area.

Does this provision prohibit an employer from stopping a lactating employee from taking time out of her day to nurse or pump. Under 3781.55, the question hinges on the definition of a “public accommodation.” A “place of public accommodation” is any “inn, restaurant, eating house, barbershop, public conveyance by air, land, or water, theater, store, other place for the sale of merchandise, or any other place of public accommodation or amusement of which the accommodations, advantages, facilities, or privileges are available to the public.” This provision typically covers public areas that have to be accessible to the disabled. Because private work areas are not generally open to the public, this provision typically does not apply to employees. So, although there are cases on this issue, my best guess is that 3781.55 does not apply to the employer/employee relationship.

Just because 3781.55 might not protect a mother’s right to nurse at work does not mean that a company should immediately prohibit the activity. To the contrary, a company has to take a look at its other similar policies. A no-breast-feeding policy will, by its very nature, only apply to women. What other similar policies might a company have? Does it allow bathroom breaks during the work day? Smoke breaks? Other personal time? If so, a ban on nursing during the work day very well might be deemed discriminatory on its face, because it is necessarily targeted only at women. In other words, before you discipline that employee for taking break to pump, stop and think whether you want to risk the likely lawsuit and the bad publicity that will probably go along with it.