Photo: Pilin_Petunyia

Five New York City police officers have lodged a civil rights-based class-action EEOC charge against the New York City Police Department alleging that it has discriminated against them by refusing to give them proper break time and legally required safe and clean spaces for expressing breast milk.

The detailed, 26-page charge, filed with the EEOC last week, is a precursor that will lead to a federal class action being launched by the officers later this year, according to their attorney, Eric Sanders, unless the city settles the action during the EEOC stage. Sanders believes the charge represents the first class-action claim brought against the NYPD for alleged discrimination against nursing mothers.

The City of New York, which is named as a defendant, along with Mayor Bill de Blasio, Police Commissioner James O’Neill and other current and past officials, responded to the EEOC charge Monday with a detailed statement that did not outright deny the claims but instead explained that a new breast milk-pumping policy had been created by the department in 2018.

“The NYPD is committed to providing its employees with appropriate accommodations to express breast milk privately, comfortably, and in close proximity to work. The new policy was developed in 2018,” the statement, provided by an NYPD spokesperson, read.

It continued, “All new precincts being built will have a private room for employees to express breast milk. With respect to existing precincts … there must be a private room or an office identified that is not a bathroom, and which can provide an employee with the requisite privacy for them to be able to express breast milk. Furthermore, the NYPD is currently exploring additional locations at 1PP [One Police Plaza headquarters] for employees to express breast milk.”

The EEOC charge carves out a class of female NYPD employees who are nursing. It seeks enjoinment of further discrimination, changes in NYPD policy related to accommodating breastfeeding mothers and both compensatory and emotional distress damages.

The five officers, some of whom work street assignments and some administrative assignments—and all of whom are nursing or have nursed their children while on the job—allege that the department, from 2007 on, has “engaged in a pattern, practice and policy of failing and refusing to provide nursing mothers with reasonable break times and a proper location to express milk.”

In addressing and setting up their claims, the five officers argue, via Sanders, that lactation is a pregnancy-related medical condition, and less favorable treatment of a lactating employee may raise an inference of unlawful discrimination.

It adds that the officers, Simone Teagle, Theresa Mahon, Melissa Soto-Germosen, Viviana Ayende and Elizabeth Ortiz, are due under the law “the same freedom to address such lactation-related needs that [employees] would have to address other similarly limiting medical conditions.”

The officers further claim that “because only women lactate, a practice that singles out lactation or breastfeeding for less favorable treatment affects only women and therefore is facially sex-based.”

The EEOC filing alleges discrimination has occurred under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the state Human Rights Law and the city Human Rights Law.

In an October interview with the Law Journal about one officer alleging discrimination, Sanders said, “This is a citywide problem. No police department facility has complied with the law.”

He added, “Just because you have someone who works for the police department, they don’t lose their constitutional rights.”

Simone Teagle, one of the five officers, in a notice of claim filed with the city Comptroller’s Office in October claimed that the police department had failed to give her proper break time to pump breast milk while nursing, pressured her when she took the legally protected breaks and ultimately transferred her out of her precinct in September 2018 in retaliation for expressing breast milk on the job.

Teagle’s problems allegedly started after she returned to work in January 2018 from maternity leave. As she began to take needed breaks inside the 113th Precinct to pump milk for an infant son, she began feeling ostracized by some fellow officers and superiors, she claimed. She also alleged she experienced backlash.

“They would look at me and roll their eyes. Or cut their eyes at me like, ‘Oh boy, here we go again,’” she told the New York Post last fall. “Sometimes they wouldn’t even acknowledge me.”

She and Sanders also said she was relegated to unsanitary spaces to pump the milk, such as a basement locker room inside the Jamaica, Queens, station house. Other unclean and often non-private areas she used were the women’s bathroom, her car and a department vehicle.

The locker room, she told the Post, had “trash on the floor, mold on the walls, old newspapers” lying around and was “just horrible.”

Moreover, the same locker room recently had a sign posted in it warning of potential asbestos problems, Sanders said last fall.

Yet, as the notice of legal claim stated, under the Affordable Care Act employers are required to provide “a place, other than a bathroom, that is shielded from view and free from intrusion from coworkers and the public, which may be used by an employee to express breast milk.”

By August, Teagle’s situation at the precinct house worsened, she told the Post. A supervisor demanded that she start listing her pump breaks in a place where everyone could see the list. And soon, she said, she started asking for fewer breaks than she needed. “I didn’t want to deal with the faces and the nastiness,” she told the Post.

In turn, according to Teagle and Sanders, she developed mastitis because she wasn’t pumping breast milk as much as she needed to. The condition is a painful breast-tissue inflammation that can involve severe swelling and infection.

Then in September 2018, Teagle, was “retaliated against,” when the police department transferred her to a new enforcement unit located in a different building, Sanders said.

He added, though, that “the place she’s been transferred to—they still don’t have the proper facilities,” and once again she is pumping in the bathroom, her parked car or another vehicle.