Can I be Fired for Requesting a Private Room to Breastfeed at Work?

Many expectant mothers face pregnancy discrimination in the workplace. Aside from businesses who refuse to hire pregnant women, many employers also do not respect the legal rights of new mothers. For example, New York State and New York City law both require employers to accommodate a mother's need to breastfeed her children. An employer may be held liable if it fails to provide such accommodations or even worse, retaliates against the mother for asking in the first place.

Right to Breastfeed vs. Expressing Breast Milk

Recently, a federal judge in Manhattan considered the related question of a mother's rights when expressing breast milk–as opposed to breastfeeding–in the workplace. In this case, the plaintiff is a mother who was allegedly fired from her job following a conversation with a supervisor about locating a proper place for her to express milk. The judge said the lawsuit could proceed against the employer, although she dismissed some parts of the case.

According to the plaintiff's original lawsuit, she worked as a part-time consultant for the defendant while still pregnant. During the pregnancy, the defendant offered her a full-time job after she returned from maternity leave. The plaintiff accepted the offer and began work about four months after giving birth.

A week into the new job, however, the plaintiff said she had a conversation with the defendant's chief operating officer regarding her need to express breast milk during the workday. The plaintiff requested a private area, but the COO allegedly said she would have to use the bathroom instead. The plaintiff said that “would not be feasible,” to which the COO allegedly responded he would need to “speak to human resources first.” The defendant then fired the plaintiff soon after.

The plaintiff subsequently sued the defendant on multiple grounds, including pregnancy and sex discrimination under Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act and the New York State Human Rights Law. The defendant moved to dismiss, arguing that the “need to express breast milk” is not protected under these laws. The judge disagreed, noting that “lactation is a related medical condition of pregnancy for purposes of” pregnancy discrimination law.

The judge did dismiss a separate claim under Section 206-c of the New York Labor Law, which requires employers to “provide a room or other location, in close proximity to the work area, where an employee can express milk in privacy.” Although this law would seem to cover the plaintiff's situation, the judge explained that no New York State court has ever held Section 206-c creates a private right of action for employees.

The judge also rejected the plaintiff's claim under the New York City Human Rights Law, which states “a mother may breast feed her baby in any location, public or private, where the mother is otherwise authorized to be.” Here, the issue was the particular language used–the judge said the law only protects “breastfeeding,” and not the expression of breast milk.

Standing Up for the Rights of Mothers in the Workplace

Dealing with a newborn is difficult enough without having to navigate the complex laws designed to protect breastfeeding mothers in the workplace. If your employer is not respecting your right to feed your child as you see fit, you should speak with a qualified New York City pregnancy and sex discrimination lawyer as soon as possible. Call the Law Offices of White, Nisar & Hilferty, LLP, if you need advice or assistance today.