For the vast majority of workers, the laws that protect their rights operate silently in the background. This is especially true in California, where labor laws are frequently hailed – or assailed – as the country’s most protective for workers.
It’s easy to forget that the standards we take for granted today were once uncharted frontiers, but sometimes a reminder is in order: the provision of new rights always meets resistance, but seldom do we regret the expansion.
A recent example makes the point. The U.S. Supreme Court denied a breastfeeding mother’s last chance at an appeal last month. The plaintiff in the case, Angela Ames, alleged that she was wrongfully terminated from her job at an Iowa insurance company after returning to work from pregnancy leave. Ames requested a room where she could express breast milk, and was instead told by her boss to “go home and be with your babies.” The district court tossed the case on summary judgment, noting that her sex discrimination claims could not stand because “lactation is not a physiological condition experienced exclusively by women.” The 8th Circuit upheld the decision.
If you’re thinking this sounds like an article in the Onion, you’re not alone. Legal opinions relying on “Strange But True” articles make me think that my trivia-minded children have a too-near-term future on the bench. And I can’t be alone in being reminded of this:
Unfortunately, Ames and other women trying to breastfeed remain unprotected in many settings, and experience resistance in even unlikely places. Last fall, my sister-in-law was prepared to sit for her board exams in for Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine. When she asked the American Board of Internal Medicine for accommodation to express milk during the 10-hour testing day, she was told to spend her break time pumping. Because as every lactating man knows, pumping is the same thing as studying, resting, eating, smoking, or taking a break.
In California, breastfeeding rights are well established. But because she lives in Indiana (where she is currently completing her fellowship), she enlisted help from me and the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project. We wrote a letter explaining the shortsightedness of ABIM’s position. The good news is ABIM accommodated her request, and subsequently changed its policy. Ms. Ames was not so lucky.
California working mothers can now rely on Labor Code section 1030, which since 2003 has required employers to provide unpaid time and non-bathroom space for employees to express breast milk. When the bill mandating these changes was debated, however, the Chamber of Commerce predictably opposed the bill.
The Chamber’s position evolved over the next decade. Last year it did not oppose AB 1787, which would have required large commercial airports to provide places for nursing mothers. But the Chamber is nothing if not consistent. Instead of recognizing that today’s vanguard is tomorrow’s baseline, the Chamber still reflexively opposes any “new rights” in the workplace, typically tagging such efforts as “job killers.”
It is time our elected officials stop crediting the tired perspective of holdouts quivering at the edge of a civil rights moment. Time has a way of showing that the Chamber’s unbroken chorus of “impending doom” and “runaway rights” holds neither moral nor economic sway. And it never stands the test of time. A dozen years later, what California employer is clamoring to end the tyranny of nursing mothers being released from the confines of a toilet stall?
The Chamber’s economic perspective is just as faulty.. Consider the following two slides:
If the Chamber’s perspective were valid, the laws enacted to protect workers in San Francisco should have crushed the City’s economic vitality. Plainly,they didn’t..
The Legislature is poised to consider any number of bills this session that will expand the rights of workers, including a renewed effort to guarantee equal pay for working women. When the Chamber begins its craven “job killer” refrain, as it will both publicly and privately in the days ahead, it should be met with skepticism. California legislators need not shy away from the reality that civil rights legislation has demonstrated a distinct, eastward migratory pattern.
If the arc of the moral universe is long and bends towards justice, short-term plans that offer only the promise of continued inequity should be met with a new chorus. “See me in 10 years if you’re still interested in reversing these rights. Otherwise, I hear they’re hiring in Iowa.”