A Houston judge ruled that a Texas woman fired for pumping while at work was not discriminated against since "lactation is not pregnancy, childbirth, or a related medical condition."
Donnicia Venters, 30, went on maternity leave from her job at debt collection agency Houston Funding on Dec 1, 2008. The leave was open-ended, per company policy on surgeries and other medical conditions. When Venters–who gave birth to a baby girl on Dec. 11, 2008–called in February 2009 to discuss her return to work, she asked if it would be OK for her to use a back room to breast pump. She was told her job had been filled.
More than a week later, around Feb. 26, 2009, Venters received by certified mail a termination letter dated about 10 days earlier, claiming that Houston Funding had "terminated [her] employment due to job abandonment effective February 13, 2009."
"I didn't think anything was wrong," she told Houston's KHOU-TV. "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."
Venters filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission claiming she had been discriminated against as a woman and a mother.
According to the suit, her manager told the president of the company that Venters was thinking of bringing a breast pump to the office. The president's response: "No. Maybe she needs to stay home longer."
Also at issue is Venters' communication with the company while she was on leave. Venters said she "consistently" kept in touch with management to let them know she would be returning to work–and that her boss, Harry Cagle, had promised to keep her job waiting for her. The company, however, countered that Venters–who was recovering from postpartum complications–did not keep supervisors updated about her recovery and possible return, so they hired a replacement.
The judge said even if the company had not assumed Venters had abandoned her job, it was still legal to fire Venters "[T]he law does not punish lactation discrimination," U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes, who is male, ruled in a three-page order. Dismissal because of pregnancy, childbirth or a related medical condition is illegal, Hughes noted, but "lactation is not pregnancy, childbirth or a related medical condition."
The lawyer who represented Venters disagrees.
"Under the law that prohibits discrimination on pregnancy, childbirth or related medical condition, lactation is a related medical condition to pregnancy and childbirth," argued Timothy Bowne, an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission attorney. "There are no people that we know of who lactate who haven’t given birth recently."
The day after Venters gave birth, Hughes' order noted, "she was no longer pregnant and her pregnancy-related conditions ended. Firing someone because of lactation or breast-pumping is not sex discrimination."
It concluded: "Even if Venters' claims are true, the law does not punish lactation discrimination."
Venters said that she and the EEOC hadn't decided yet whether to appeal.
Joan Williams, a law professor and director of the Center for Work Life Law at the University of California, Hastings, told ABC News it "makes no sense at all" to say lactation is not a medical condition related to pregnancy or childbirth.
"Everybody knows that breastfeeding is a medical condition related to childbirth," Williams said.
The EEOC will host a hearing about pregnancy discrimination on Feb. 15 in Washington, D.C. Williams is scheduled to testify.
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