Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Lactation at work requires reasonableness on both sides

Photo by Joelk75, via Flickr, cc
Both of my children were formula-fed. It wasn’t for lack of lactation effort. We (or, more accurately, she) tried to feed each naturally. My daughter’s birth followed 72 hours of awful labor, from which we were not sure my wife was going to make it (that’s a story for another day), and my son just did not want to eat. So for reasons that made perfect sense to us, we fed both exclusively by formula. The “lactation specialists” at the hospitals were not happy with us, and they let us know all about it. What they failed to do, however, was talk to us. It was a one-sided conversation, which failed.

In Ames v. Nationwide Mutual Ins. (8th Cir. 3/13/14), Angela Ames claimed that Nationwide discriminated against her because of her sex and pregnancy by not providing her access to a room in which to lactate. We know that lactation discrimination equates to pregnancy discrimination, and yet, in Ames, Nationwide won. Why?

Nationwide won because it had a lactation policy that provided employees reasonable access to a private room to express milk, and because Ames refused to even consider an accommodation when a room was temporarily unavailable.

Nationwide’s lactation policy allowed employees to gain badge access to its lactation rooms after completing certain paperwork that required three days processing. Even though Ames had not completed the required paperwork, the company nurse requested for her immediate access to a lactation room. While the company was processing the request, the nurse suggested that Ames use one of the company’s wellness room, which would become available in 15 or 20 minutes. In tears, Ames quit her job and sued.

The court explained its reasoning for affirming the trial court’s dismissal of Ames’s sex and pregnancy claims:
Ames was denied immediate access to a lactation room only because she had not completed the paperwork to gain badge access. Every nursing mother was required to complete the same paperwork and was subjected to the same three-day waiting period. Further, Hallberg [the nurse] tried to accommodate Ames by allowing her to use a wellness room as soon as it was available and by requesting that Ames receive expedited access to the lactation rooms.… That Nationwide’s policies treated all nursing mothers and loss-mitigation specialists alike demonstrates that Nationwide did not intend to force Ames to resign when it sought to enforce its policies.
The moral of this story is that evidence of open conversations with your employees about accommodations wins lawsuits. Nationwide won because it tried to work with Ames to find a temporary solution to her problem. Ames lost because she refused to be reasonable under the circumstances. Conflict requires a give-and-take, not a give-and-give. As long as an employer can show equal enforcement of policies, coupled with an effort to work with an employee, most lawsuits will resolve in the employer’s favor. The lactation folks at the hospitals refused to work with us, and they lost their battle. Nationwide tried to work with Ames, and, because she refused, it won their lawsuit. Let this case be a lesson to you, not only in dealing with the unique needs of lactating employees, but in resolving all conflict within the workplace.