An Absecon police sergeant is suing the city and its police chief after she says she was discriminated and retaliated against because she asked for a private area to pump breast milk after returning from maternity leave.
Joyce Lee is seeking damages for the “annoyance, inconvenience, stress, anxiety, humiliation, depression, physical pain and suffering, severe emotional distress and pecuniary loss” she endured since returning from maternity leave in April 2019 and being made to pump in an open area in front of her male colleagues. Lee said that when she complained, she was a target of unfair disciplinary action.
The city claims in its response that Lee could have made use of a locker room to pump, but chose not to, adding that Lee’s disciplinary history is well-documented.
Under the Affordable Care Act as well as a 2018 New Jersey state law signed by Gov. Chris Christie, most employers are required to provide private areas other than the bathroom for employees to use a breast pump. Neither law specifically addresses the use of a locker room.
In the suit filed in Atlantic County Superior Court in April, Lee claims that the Absecon Police Department had a “culture of gender discrimination” known to the highest ranking officers, including Chief James Laughlin, that was “open, notorious, and perpetuated.”
Lee’s attorney Sebastian Ionno was not available for comment Friday. Attorney John Grady, who is representing the city and Laughlin, declined to comment.
Lee was hired by Absecon Police in 2005 and says in her suit that she was aware of unequal treatment in promotions, training and discipline between women and men of the department. The city and Laughlin, in the response filed by Grady, deny those allegations.
According to Lee, upon her return from maternity leave, she was exclusively breastfeeding her newborn. She said she requested a private area to pump breast milk and began using a storage room.
Although she placed a sign on the door to let everyone know the room was occupied, Lee said her male coworkers would walk in the room anyway.
Absecon and Laughlin say they “know nothing about (Lee) communicating any such” request or requirement. The defendants admit in their response that only on one occasion did a male coworker walk in on Lee, and it was accidental.
In her complaint, Lee said soon after, she was told she could no longer use the room to pump, and no other area was provided. The city and Laughlin deny the allegation.
“Plaintiff and other female employees have multiple areas where they may breast pump in private including the women’s locker room,” the defendants said in their response.
The law Christie signed amended the state’s laws against discrimination to include breastfeeding mothers and required that employers provide “reasonable break time each day to the employee and a suitable room or other location with privacy, other than a toilet stall, in close proximity to the work area for the employee to express breast milk for the child.”
The federal guidelines specifically require that breastfeeding areas not be located in a bathroom, “and it must be shielded from view and free from intrusion by coworkers or the public,” according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
Lee says that following her complaints about the lack of a suitable area to pump, she began receiving frivolous write-ups and “grossly excessive” discipline resulting in multiple internal affairs investigations and allegations of professional misconduct throughout 2020.
Lee states that in all her years with Absecon prior to making requests for breastmilk pumping accommodations, she had never had those issues. The defendants deny that, stating Lee’s “disciplinary history reflects objective facts and internal affairs investigations.”
In February 2020, Lee was placed on a suspension at Laughlin’s personal requestd. She served 10 days and then was reassigned to patrol. In October, she again received disciplinary charges seeking to suspend Lee for 20 days and demote her rank to patrol officer.
Contact Claire Lowe: 609-272-7251