Michigan law protects nursing mothers: Will it reduce discrimination?

New Michigan law protects women while breastfeeding in public. The measure broadens protections for pregnant women, however, pregnancy discrimination at the workplace still continues.

The Breastfeeding Anti-Discrimination Act went into effect recently after Governor Rick Snyder signed off on the legislation. The new law protects nursing mothers from discrimination and allows moms to feed their babies in public as needed.

A mother nursing her child can no longer be charged with obscene conduct or indecent exposure in Michigan. Businesses may not post signs limiting women from nursing or deny them services. Michigan becomes one of 46 states with similar protections for nursing mothers.

The author of the legislation, Rep. Amanda Price, described the law as "a common-sense measure to help Michigan mothers feel comfortable with breastfeeding." This adds to workplace protections that went into place in 2010 as part of the Affordable Care Act. The law contained a provision requiring that employers provide a space to pump and reasonable break time.

These measures may make it easier for women to continue to nurse after they return to work. Another issue that many women face is gender discrimination during a pregnancy. It is often not blatant, because most employers know better. For this reason, proving a case may be quite difficult, but a skilled employment law attorney can find the right evidence.

Federal protections against pregnancy discrimination

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits an employer from firing or discriminating against an employee based on the individual's sex or gender. This includes discrimination that may be based on:

  • Pregnancy
  • Childbirth
  • Any related condition, such as lifting restrictions

To bring a pregnancy discrimination suit the plaintiff must first present evidence that the employer discriminated against her. Then, the burden shifts to the employer to provide a non-discriminatory reason for an adverse employment action. Finally, the plaintiff can argue that the reason was in fact pretextual or a cover for the discriminatory actions.

There are various multi-part tests for each of the above elements. An employment discrimination attorney can explain these in more detail.

What might constitute pretextual actions?

In one Michigan case from last year, an employer fired a CNA when her physician placed a lifting restriction due to prior miscarriages. The CNA had been with the company for more than a year and had always performed her duties competently. However, when the company learned she was pregnant they requested a doctor's note that no employment restrictions existed. When the woman's doctor faxed a note stating "only restriction no lifting over #50" she was effectively fired.

She told her employer she did not want to begin FMLA leave, because she was only in her second trimester. When she picked up her employment records, a co-owner of the company opined that later in her pregnancy her "belly would be in the way" anyway. The company argued its policy was pregnancy-blind and they terminated all employees with such restrictions.

In this case, the worker alleged enough facts to get past an initial summary judgment motion. Because the employer claimed to have a pregnancy-blind policy, she needed to show that it was in effect a cover for their discriminatory conduct. The comment of the co-owner likely helped in that regard.

Losing a job while pregnant is devastating and may affect your ability to provide for your family. If you believe a discriminatory policy at your company lead to the decision, contact an experienced employment discrimination attorney to discuss your case.

Keywords: pregnancy discrimination, lifting restrictions, accomodations