Affirming that breastfeeding is a medical condition related to pregnancy and that the police department’s conduct violated the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA), a federal appeals court in Atlanta has upheld the jury’s verdict for a former Tuscaloosa, Alabama police officer. Hicks v. City of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, No. 16-13003 (11th Cir. Sept. 7, 2017). Stephanie Hicks was awarded $374,000 in damages against the police department for pregnancy discrimination due to breastfeeding.
Trouble started for Hicks immediately after she returned from maternity leave. She was provided with only one option as a place to pump at work: an unsanitary and public locker room. She also felt she was constantly under scrutiny regarding her whereabouts during her pumping breaks. Even as she headed down to the locker room to pump, she would hear taunting, such as “wrap those boobs up” on her police radio.
Making matters worse, the police department began writing her up for what she believed were minor issues. Hicks was demoted to a patrol officer a week after her return from leave. This meant she would receive a pay decrease, be assigned to night and weekend shifts, and no longer have a vehicle. As a patrol officer, she also would have to wear a snug-fitting bullet proof vest on duty. Her obstetrician provided her with a doctor’s note explaining that the tight vest would reduce her milk supply and place her at risk for infections. In response, the police department told her she had no choice but to wear the vest or risk serious bodily injury. This was the last straw and she resigned.
Breastfeeding advocates and supporters attended the trial to support Hicks as a nursing mother. The jury also supported Hicks and found sufficient evidence of discrimination. The Eleventh Circuit affirmed. It also said that Congress intended the PDA to include physiological conditions post-pregnancy and that the PDA would be rendered a nullity if women were protected during a pregnancy, but could be readily terminated for breastfeeding.
The Affordable Care Act requires employers to provide nursing mothers with reasonable break times for expressing breast milk and with a private place to pump, other than a restroom. As a direct result of the verdict, Tuscaloosa’s police department and City Hall now have private rooms for nursing mothers; all employers should do the same. Employers are obligated to engage in the interactive process with breastfeeding employees who provide medical documentation to support the need for an accommodation. Finally, employers must have a zero-tolerance policy for harassment or retaliation of nursing employees. Breastfeeding is considered a disability under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act and protections of disabilities must be taken seriously.