HR Management & Compliance

Court Provides New Guidance on What to Expect When You’re Expecting (or Breastfeeding)

Many parents—including this one—will admit that one of the first things they did after learning they were expecting was purchase the latest “fad” book or read the newest blog on pregnancy and parenting. Just as parenting guidance continues to evolve, so too does guidance from the court on issues relating to pregnancy and breastfeeding in the workplace.breastfeeding

A recent case from an Illinois federal court provides two important clarifications on pregnancy accommodations under the Illinois Human Rights Act (IHRA) and claims under the Illinois Nursing Mothers in the Workplace Act (INMWA).

First Trimester

“Hannah” worked as a fire paramedic for the city of Chicago in June 2014 when she learned she was pregnant. After she told her supervisor about her pregnancy, she claims she was immediately asked to take a leave she hadn’t requested. Throughout her pregnancy, she was required to stay on leave and to report monthly either in person or by phone to confirm she was still pregnant.

Hannah had her baby on February 4, 2015, and came back to work on April 8. She was breastfeeding when she returned to work and needed to pump breast milk during the workday. She claims the city failed to discuss or give her accommodations for pumping after she requested them. When she asked for a private room that wasn’t a bathroom where she could express milk, she was told that no such place existed but that she could try someplace such as an ambulance, hospital, or quiet corner.

Because no private place was available, Hannah claimed that at times she was forced to go more than 8 hours without being able to express breast milk.

Hannah sued the city, alleging that it violated the IHRA, the INMWA, and other state and federal statutes.

Forced Bedrest

On January 1, 2015, the IHRA was amended to require that employers provide reasonable accommodations for medical and other common conditions related to pregnancy or childbirth. However, the IHRA pregnancy accommodation amendment didn’t specify whether the changes applied to acts that occurred before the amendment was passed.

Hannah claimed that the changes were retroactive—meaning they applied to acts before January 1, 2015. As such, she claimed the city violated the IHRA by forcing her to take leave after she told her supervisor she was pregnant in June 2014. The city, however, said that even if her claims were true, the changes to the Act didn’t take effect until January 1, 2015. It asked the court to dismiss her claim for this reason.

The federal trial court agreed that the amendment didn’t state whether it was meant to apply retroactively. Therefore, the court said it needed to determine whether applying the amendment to acts that occurred before it took effect increased an employer’s liability for past conduct or imposed new duties with regard to acts that had already occurred. If so, then the court said it would presume the legislature hadn’t intend for it to apply retroactively.

The court determined that the amendment created new obligations on the employee-employer relationship by specifically requiring a reasonable accommodation process for job applicants and employees related to pregnancy and childbirth. It said there was no proof that the legislature intended for the amendment to apply to conduct before January 1, 2015. Accordingly, it concluded that Hannah couldn’t state a claim for any wrongful acts that occurred before that date and dismissed her IHRA claim.

Pump and Dump

Hannah also claimed that the city violated the INMWA by failing to provide her with the opportunity and place to express breast milk. This law requires you to make reasonable efforts to accommodate an employee who needs to express breast milk for her baby.

The required, unpaid break time is supposed to run concurrently with any break time you already grant. You are also required to make reasonable efforts to provide a room or other location that isn’t a bathroom for her to express breast milk.

The city argued that Hannah didn’t have the right to bring a claim under the INMWA. The court acknowledged the Act doesn’t explicitly state that private employees can bring individual claims against their employers, and it also recognized that whether a private right of action exists under the INMWA had never been addressed by the courts and was an open issue under Illinois law.

Milking It for All Its Worth

According to the court, if there’s no explicit right of action in a law, it may still be implied in a statute. To determine whether a private right of action was implied, the court assessed whether one is necessary to provide an adequate remedy for violations of the act.

The city argued that the IHRA already provides penalties for violations of the INMWA and, therefore, no private right of action was needed. However, the court said the city misunderstood the test. What the city needed to show (and what it failed to argue) was whether the law in question—here, the INMWA—already provides an effective remedy that would preclude the need for any implied private right of action. As a result, Hannah can proceed with her INMWA claim. Spriesch v. City of Chicago, 17 C 1952 (N.D. Ill. Oct. 26, 2017).

Express Yourself

This case provides two important takeaways for Illinois employers. First, you now know you aren’t liable under the IHRA if you failed to provide applicants and employees accommodations related to pregnancy and childbirth before January 1, 2015. Second, you now know that individual employees can bring claims against you if you fail to comply with the INMWA.

Perhaps more important than these fine points of law, the case is a good reminder that you must make accommodations for pregnant employees and arrangements for nursing mothers who need to express breast milk.

This article was written by Kelly Smith-Haley of Fox, Swibel, Levin & Carroll, LLP, and an editor of the Illinois Employment Law Letter. She can be reached at