A federal appeals court has ruled that an Alabama police department discriminated against a female employee by demoting her, creating a hostile work environment and refusing to provide breastfeeding accommodations when she returned from maternity leave after the birth of her first child.
Stephanie Hicks told AL.com that she had been with the Tuscaloosa Police Department since 2008. When her son, Will, was born in 2012, she took 12 weeks of unpaid leave (which is protected by the Family and Medical Leave Act).
However, problems started before she even returned to work. While on maternity leave, Hicks says that a co-worker called to warn her that he had overheard Hicks’ supervisors talking about writing her up for some minor infractions when she returned from maternity leave.
Her first morning back at work, Hicks says she was indeed written up for failing to change the oil in her patrol car — an infraction so minor that court documents claim no one at the police department had ever been written up for it before. According to AL.com, she was also written up for obtaining too many warrants, though there are no city policies that specify what is an acceptable number of warrants or prohibit officers from obtaining a certain number.
There’s more: Hicks says that when she asked for a place to pump privately at work, she was told she could do so in the locker room at the police station. “Pumping in the locker room was awful,” she told AL.com. “Sitting there by the shower stall, where the dispatchers and the public could walk in. Somebody was always asking what I was doing.”
Hicks added that she’d inevitably be in the middle of pumping when she would get a call from her fellow officers or the dispatcher telling her to “wrap those boobs up” because it was time to “execute a search warrant.” Her supervisors wouldn’t let her pump anywhere else — even though the Affordable Care Act (ACA) requires employers to provide breastfeeding employees with a clean, private space to pump that is not a bathroom.
Six days after returning to work, Hicks was demoted from her job as an investigator with the narcotics unit and reassigned to the patrol division, which meant she got a pay cut, was required to work nights and weekends and had to wear a bulletproof vest. Hicks worried that the vest would restrict her milk supply, and when she talked to her obstetrician about it, he agreed, adding that it could also put her at risk for mastitis, a painful infection of breast tissue that can result in breast tenderness, pain and swelling. Hicks requested a temporary desk job, which was denied. Instead, she says her supervisors told her she could opt not to wear the bulletproof vest, wear it loosely, quit breastfeeding or quit her job.
Hicks quit her job in January of 2013 and filed a lawsuit in November of 2013 (her husband, also a police officer, eventually quit his job as well, saying the environment became too hostile). After a two-week trial last February, in which a federal jury found that the Tuscaloosa Police Department had violated the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978, she was awarded $374,000 in damages. The city of Tuscaloosa appealed the verdict, arguing that Hicks had been demoted due to poor performance, but last Thursday, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the jury’s verdict that the city had discriminated against Hicks.
“So many people have reached out to me and said they were treated similarly, whether they were paramedics or teachers or bank tellers,” Hicks told AL.com. “They all say the same thing: I was afraid, I couldn’t afford to quit my job, I didn’t want to be retaliated against. Fighting the system is very hard.”