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Former employee sues HHS over breast-feeding

Last modified: 9/25/2014 12:52:13 AM
A former state employee is suing the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services, alleging that the agency put her in a position that forced her to choose between breast-feeding her child and keeping her job.

In a complaint filed Sunday, Katherine Frederick’s attorney, Benjamin King, writes that HHS wrongfully fired his client instead of giving her “a private place” at the office to breast-feed her son or allowing her to travel to her son’s nearby day-care facility in order to do so. Frederick’s son refused to drink from a bottle for the first 4½ months after he was born in May 2012, according to the complaint, and breast-feeding “was the only means” of feeding him. The complaint notes that Frederick had received documentation from her medical providers that indicated “breastfeeding (was) imperative for her infant’s health” and provided this to the officials she worked with.

Separately, King confirmed that Frederick’s day care – Children Unlimited Inc. – was located at 182 W. Main St. in Conway. The Conway offices of HHS where she worked are located at 73 Hobbs St., and is estimated to be less than a third of a mile away.

In denying Frederick the above accommodations, the complaint alleges that HHS violated the Fair Labor Standards Act and the Family Medical Leave Act, among other discrimination and whistle-blower protection laws. Frederick is seeking a jury trial, and is asking to be paid her lost wages and other “compensatory damages.”

Frederick did not return to work, as originally scheduled, Aug. 17, 2012, and was summoned to a disciplinary hearing Aug. 23, 2012, according to the complaint. She was fired via letter Sept. 21, 2012.

“The state really put Ms. Frederick in a position where she had to choose between her baby and her job,” King said in an interview. “Ms. Frederick needed that accommodation, and more importantly her baby needed that accommodation because her baby depended on breast-feeding for his nutrition.”

The complaint, citing email correspondence and conversations Frederick had with department personnel, alleges that a supervisor offered to designate a “lactation room” at the office where Frederick could pump breast milk into a bottle for her son. When Frederick explained that this would not work because her son would not drink from a bottle, the complaint alleges that a department official told her, via email, “You are also permitted to breast feed your child on breaks in any public area on the grounds, which has also been explained and offered to you.”

The email, included in the complaint, continued: “You are not permitted to leave the premises during your paid breaks, which seems to be the only option that you find acceptable.”

HHS spokeswoman Kris Neilsen deferred comment on the lawsuit to the state attorney general’s office. Associate Attorney General Richard Head, when reached yesterday afternoon, said the office has not seen the lawsuit and he was therefore unable to comment.

The department, on its website, encourages “worksite breastfeeding support” and points to provisions under the Affordable Care Act that require employers to provide “reasonable break time for an employee to express breast milk for her nursing child for 1 year after the child’s birth each time such employee has need to express the milk.” In its online suggestions, the department suggests that employers give breast-feeding employees privacy and allow for “flexible breaks” of at least 15 to 20 minutes, among other accommodations.

“Supportive policies and practices that enable women to return to work and successfully continue to breastfeed send a message to all employees that breastfeeding is valued,” the department also says on its website. “Management can encourage supervisors to work with breastfeeding employees in making reasonable accommodations to help them reach their breastfeeding goals and encourage other employees to exhibit a positive and accepting attitude.”

The department’s stated support for breast-feeding as a healthy option for mothers and children seems to contradict what Frederick experienced as an employee with the department, King said.

“The fact that HHS would take that position publicly and then refuse to give one of its own employees reasonable accommodations that would have enabled her to breast-feed her own child when it was essential for her to do so was deeply disturbing to Ms. Frederick,” King said.

(Casey McDermott can be reached at 369-3306 or cmcdermott@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @caseymcdermott.)


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