The Supreme Court recently rejected a petition to review the case of a woman who claims she was fired for needing to pump breast milk at work. The suit was already dismissed by a trial court on the grounds that firing a woman for breastfeeding isn’t sexist… because men can lactate too.
Angela Ames sued her former employer, Nationwide Insurance, for failing to accommodate her milk-pumping needs when she returned from maternity leave. When Ames asked a supervisor for a space to pump and store her expressed milk, she reports that she was told to “go home and be with your babies” and was given a pen and paper and told what she should write in her letter of resignation. Thinking she was being told to quit, she submitted her resignation. And just in case you are confused because this sounds like something out of the 1950s, all of this occurred recently.
In a brief submitted to the courts on behalf of Ames, we learn about all the roadblocks and challenges she faced at Nationwide, starting during her maternity leave. While on leave, Ames was called by her supervisor and told they had miscalculated her available FMLA leave, that she would actually have to return back to work several weeks earlier than anticipated and that if Ames took any additional unpaid time, there would be “red flags and problems.”
On her first day back from leave, Ames was given the runaround when she tried to find an appropriate place to pump milk. She was told she couldn’t use the actual lactation room, as it required a three-day wait period. She was sent to the company nurse, who told her she could use the “wellness room,” though at the time it was occupied by a sick employee. Ames finally returned to her supervisor, in pain from not having nursed or pumped in hours, which was when she was told she would be better off going home to be with her babies.
Unfortunately for Ames, all the lower courts decided that her firing was not a sexist act and used the remarkable excuse that men are able to lactate too as supportive reasoning. While yes, biologically it is very possible to induce lactation in men, it is most certainly not the norm, and is a very difficult process. I have yet to hear of a man requesting space and time to pump because he’s breastfeeding an infant. To use this line of thinking is not only absurd but basically ignores the very real and ongoing issues many working mothers face on a daily basis.
The courts also found that the dismissive statement that Ames should “go home and be with her babies” was not sexist, as that could easily apply to men as well. But again, reality shows that very few male employees are ever spoken to in a way that assumes they are a parent first and an employee second. It is absolutely frustrating and unfortunate that the Supreme Court declined to review Ames’ case, as it could have been a stepping-stone for better workplace policy when it comes to working mothers.
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