Breasts, Disability Law, Fat People, Gender, Labor / Employment, Women's Issues

It’s Hard Out Here for New Mothers and Large Women: Employment Discrimination Potpourri

There are a couple of interesting employment discrimination suits floating around the blogosphere today. One is continuing on behalf of a dead, obese woman. The other involves leaky breasts. Sound like fun?

The claim that is being pursued by the estate of a dead woman is slightly more newsworthy because the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is taking the position that a worker for a non-profit was fired because she had a disability. According to the EEOC — in my head, the EEOC sounds like Jame Gumb (a.k.a. Buffalo Bill) — Lisa Harrison was fired for being a great big fat girl.

Harrison died after filing the suit, but it is being carried on by her estate.

We’ve talked before about how fat people are on the fast track to protected class status. Protected class status is one thing, but are we sure we want to call fat people disabled?

According to the complaint, Harrison was able to do her work, despite her “disability.” From the ABA Journal:

The suit claims Harrison was able to perform all the essential functions of her job, but her employer perceived her as being limited in major life activities, such as walking. The suit claims a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Keith Hill, the field director of the EEOC’s New Orleans office, said the suit is “a classic case of disability bias, based on myths and stereotypes.”

I can’t find any mention of how big Harrison was before she died, but you’ve got to be beyond your regular old fat person if you can’t “walk.” If she was able to get to and from work without a crane, let’s assume that she was able to physically locomote her girth around town.

Did she like to walk? Probably not. I can’t imagine she was as eager for a brisk hike as some of her co-workers. But I’m not sure you can fire somebody for not wanting to walk around (at least, I hope you can’t).

But going from “employer perceived her as being limited in major life activities” to “a classic case of disability bias” seems like a huge jump. Expecting that a man with no arms has trouble typing, or that a midget is magical and humorous — those are classic cases of disability bias. Perceiving that a fat person doesn’t like walking seems more along the lines of assuming an ugly person has trouble scoring dates at happy hour. It might be an incorrect assumption, but it seems like a far cry from discriminating against the disabled.

At what point does an expansive definition of the word “disabled” cause more harm than good, both to the new “victims” and the truly disabled (or “differently abled,” if you prefer)? There are a lot of stereotypes about obese people, and many of them are wrong, but how does calling them “disabled” help anybody? I’ve never found myself looking at a menu and thinking, “Man, I really feel like a salad right now, but I’m too disabled to eat it — I guess I’ll have to go with the deep friend mac ‘n cheese and a bacon pizza. CURSES!”

Moving on to the next case, it seems to me that anytime you are in a situation where fluids could involuntarily express from your breasts, the least your employer can do is provide you with a little privacy.

That didn’t happen for a woman in Iowa. On her first day back at work from maternity leave, Angela Ames was informed that the private breast pumping room (which employers are required to provide) was not going to be available to her for at least three days. After trying to suck it up (no pun intended), Ames quit her job, that very day. The Des Moines Register reports:

Ames, 32, tried to keep working that day in July, but her breasts were engorged and leaking milk, making her extremely uncomfortable, she said in the complaint.

In an interview, she said she couldn’t find an alternative place to use her electronic pump. The bathroom wasn’t an option because there was no electricity in the private stalls, and she didn’t think it was appropriate to expose herself to everyone who came into the bathroom, she said.

Ames said she considered going home to pump, but that would be time consuming, and she knew she’d need to pump again three hours later. So she resigned.

And then she filed a complaint against her employer with the Iowa Civil Rights Commission.

If that were all there was to it, it would be a slam dunk case. However, there’s more to Ames’s story. She was a loss mitigation specialist at Nationwide and there were complications with her pregnancy. She ended up coming back to work a couple of weeks before her doctors advised, and that first day back went very badly, very quickly:

Ames agreed to return to work on July 19. After she began the process to get her computer system running, she asked a security guard for access to a lactation room. He directed her to the staff nurse.

The nurse “informed me that it was Nationwide’s policy that I fill out paperwork to be placed on the list for the lactation rooms and that there was a three-day waiting period while this paperwork was processed,” Ames said in her complaint.

The staff directed Ames to use the “sick room,” but there was a sick person already in that room. So Ames went back to her desk:

“By this time, I’m leaking milk,” she said in an interview.

At her desk, Ames began to feel anxiety. Her older son hadn’t gained enough weight from nursing, so Ames put him on baby formula. Ames was determined to help her newborn, born five weeks early, to breastfeed. She knew long periods between nursing or expressing milk could cause her milk supply to decrease.

“I felt that I had no choice but to resign immediately,” she said.

Would the walls come crashing down if Nationwide had given this employee keys to the private breast pumping room before her paperwork was processed? Whether or not Ames’s decision was wise or rash, the whole situation could have been avoided if whoever had the keys looked past the bureaucracy and looked right at the woman with the leaky breasts in front of them. Can’t we live in a working world where women who are leaking breast milk get access to a private room? Does anybody really have a problem with that?

If I had to choose (which of course I don’t), I’d say that the breastfeeding claim makes a lot more sense than that disabled by fatness claim. This is one of those happy situations where common sense should suffice. Are fat people disabled? No, not in any way that diet and exercise won’t help. When milk starts pouring out of your breasts, do you deserve some privacy? Yeah… yeah, I think that would be a good little rule in a civilized society.

EEOC Claims Obesity Is a Disability in Suit Filed for Fired Worker [ABA Journal]
Breastfeeding mother quits job, files civil rights complaint [Des Moines Register]

Earlier: Hooters and the Heavy Consequences of Having Boobs

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