NEW JERSEY – Acting Attorney General Matthew J. Platkin and the Division on Civil Rights (DCR) announced Tuesday that national retailer America’s Best Contacts & Eyeglasses must pay a former employee $30,500 as part of a settlement that resolves the former employee’s allegations of pregnancy-related workplace discrimination, including failure by the company to provide a suitable place for her to express breast milk.
America’s Best is a discount provider of eye examinations, eyeglasses and contact lenses with 700 stores nationally, including 24 retail locations in New Jersey. In addition to paying its former employee, the company must pay $10,000 to DCR under the settlement, and must implement a variety of policy and training measures to prevent pregnancy-related discrimination in the future.
The complainant, a former employee at an America’s Best store in Burlington, filed her complaint with DCR in March 2019, alleging the company had violated the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD). Specifically, the complainant alleged that upon her return from maternity leave, America’s Best treated her differently based on her pregnancy by cutting her work hours from full-time to part-time. The reduction to part-time status eliminated the new mother’s eligibility for employer-provided healthcare coverage.
The complainant also claimed that America’s Best violated the LAD by failing to reasonably accommodate her request for a place to express breast milk. Her employer’s approach to such an accommodation, the complainant alleged, was to place her in an oft-accessed utility room that did not have a lock on the door and was full of supply boxes. She alleged that while expressing breast milk, she was forced to lean up against the unlocked door in an attempt to ensure privacy, but was still periodically interrupted by workers who entered to obtain supplies. The ex-employee also told DCR that while expressing breast milk, she was frequently directed to “hurry up and finish” because customers were waiting.
DCR conducted a preliminary investigation into the alleged conduct of America’s Best and subsequently issued a Finding of Probable Cause against the company.
“The Law Against Discrimination provides strong and explicit protections for pregnant employees and breastfeeding employees,” Platkin said. “This case should send a clear message to employers throughout New Jersey: We will not tolerate discrimination against workers who are pregnant or breastfeeding. Companies, managers, and supervisory personnel need to understand that they have a legal responsibility to protect the rights of those workers.”
“Under the LAD, an employer must grant reasonable accommodations for an employee who is breastfeeding, including reasonable break time each day, and a private place — other than a toilet stall or unlocked, busy supply closet — in which to express breast milk,” said DCR Deputy Director Rosemary DiSavino. “The LAD provides greater protections than federal law in this regard, and DCR will continue to vigorously enforce these protections.”
The complainant began her employment with America’s Best as a full-time sales associate in May 2018, earning an hourly wage plus sales commissions. Because she worked more than 30 hours per week, she was considered full-time, and received healthcare benefits for herself and her children.
The complainant took maternity leave beginning on November 19, 2018 and returned to work on March 4, 2019. In her complaint, the ex-employee alleged that in February 2019 – only days before she was scheduled to return to her full-time sales associate position – she had a telephone conversation with her manager in which he informed her that only part-time hours were available because another employee had taken over her hours while she was out on leave.
Time sheets obtained by DCR showed that the complainant worked an average of 34 hours per week prior to her maternity leave, but worked an average of only 28 hours a week after returning.
According to the complainant, she was never restored to full-time hours, despite also informing the company’s district manager of her situation, and despite an alleged promise from that same district manager to arrange additional work hours at the Audubon store to qualify her as a full-time employee.
As to its failure to provide an adequate place for the complainant to express breastmilk, DCR’s investigation showed that America’s Best eventually installed a lock on the utility room door where the ex-employee was forced to express milk – but not until nearly three months had passed after her return to work from pregnancy leave.
Under the terms of the agreement announced Tuesday, in addition to a monetary payment, America’s Best must:
- Review and revise, if necessary, its policy regarding pregnancy and breastfeeding to ensure it complies with all relevant laws, and distribute a copy of the policy to all of its employees in New Jersey, as well as to DCR;
- Create a training module on the company’s overall anti-discrimination policy, its policy regarding pregnancy and lactation, and on the LAD for all employees working in New Jersey, and have them complete the training within the next year;
- Conduct separate anti-discrimination training for managers and supervisors in New Jersey that includes examples of pregnancy discrimination and a discussion of best practices on how to engage in the interactive process (required by the LAD) with individuals who request an accommodation for pregnancy and breastfeeding.
- Provide DCR with bi-annual reports cataloguing all pregnancy-related accommodation requests and serious pregnancy discrimination complaints made by employees during the next three years.