California law prohibits employers from retaliating against a woman who requests reasonable accommodation during and following pregnancy. Considered a medical necessity, lactating employees may use a pump during work. In addition to local and state employment laws, employees covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act, a federal law, may receive a reasonable degree of break time for one year past childbirth to express breast milk.

If an employer harasses a woman for taking care of her medical condition, she may file a legal action against the company. In one such case, a former employee of a large fast-food company alleged discrimination by her employer for pumping milk at work.

Punitive damages awarded

According to Newsweek magazine, a federal jury awarded the former fast-food employee $1.5 million in punitive damages, plus $25K in compensatory damages after determining that she suffered harassment and gender discrimination.

Her medical condition required her to pump milk every two hours. After the fast-food giant hired her, her supervisor allowed her to take no more than one short break during an entire 10-hour shift. Because she was unable to properly care for herself, she endured pain, embarrassment and her supply of milk dried up.

Jury’s verdict sends a message

Originally hired as an assistant manager fewer than six months after she gave birth to her son, the young mother claimed that her employer demoted her as a result of her need to pump milk. The jury determined that the demotion and her treatment were issues of harassment and discrimination. An award of punitive damages in addition to a compensatory award demonstrates a jury’s intent to send a message to a defendant and deter future misconduct.

Privacy was an additional issue raised in the complaint. While working at a location outfitted with several surveillance cameras, management refused to turn any of them off to provide the woman with privacy, even when she expressed her milk in the manager’s office.

Federal and state laws protect employees

Federal and state laws provide employees with protection against employers’ discriminatory and retaliatory actions. Both small companies and major corporations may face legal reprisals for employee mistreatment.