An Ohio Supreme Court decision allowing a breastfeeding mother to be fired from her job for taking breaks to pump milk has ignited an angry buzz.
The decision came in the case of LaNisa Allen, a temporary warehouse laborer for Totes/Isotoner Corp. in West Chester, Ohio. Ms. Allen was fired after taking unscheduled breaks from work to pump milk. She fed her five-month-old baby before reporting to work for her 6 a.m. shift, but found waiting until her scheduled 11 a.m. break to pump was too difficult.
Any breastfeeding mother could relate to the discomfort and leakage Ms. Allen said she was experiencing.
Ms. Allen asked her bosses either to let her take an extended break at 10 a.m., or to extend a brief 10-minute break she was allowed at 8 a.m., to allow her time to pump, but neither request was granted. Ms. Allen began taking an unscheduled restroom break around 10 a.m. every day to use her breast pump, court papers show. A supervisor told her she was violating rules by not waiting until her 11 a.m. break, and she was later fired.
Ms. Allen sued Totes/Isotoner for discrimination under Ohio laws barring sex and pregnancy discrimination. Attorneys for Ms. Allen argued that other Totes employees weren’t required to get permission in advance to take extra restroom breaks for other kinds of discomforts. They contended Ms. Allen was illegally singled out for a condition tied directly to pregnancy and childbirth.
Her employer contended her firing wasn’t related to her need to pump, but to her failing to follow directions and violating workplace rules by taking unauthorized breaks.
But this decision isn’t what it seems. A closer look reveals the court dodged the core question—whether breastfeeding mothers are protected by pregnancy-discrimination laws—and focused instead on the fact that Ms. Allen’s attorneys didn’t offer enough evidence up front that her employer was motivated by discrimination.
One dissenting justice objected that the court should have ruled anyway on the core question of whether breastfeeding mothers can legally be fired for pumping at work. (He and two other justices believe they can’t, court papers show.)