Being pregnant or nursing an infant can be blissful, but for people like a Cranberry police officer who alleged unequal treatment while on light duty, it can bring unexpected hardships.
In hopes of improving understanding of the legal landscape for new parents, the Women’s Law Project is bringing the WLP Navigator intervention program, launched in Philadelphia, to Western Pennsylvania. WLP is expanding the program in hopes of “getting to women, pregnant people and lactating people before that discrimination occurs,” said Ena Lebel, a contract staff attorney with WLP. “When they’re going back to work or when they’re determining how they want to handle their leave or how they want to ask for an accommodation, having the resources to talk that over so that they can feel empowered is critical.”
People who are discriminated against because they are pregnant or lactating can file with agencies including the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission [EEOC] and the Pennsylvania Human Rights Commission, but those processes are “really hard,” she said. “It takes years.”
The WLP Navigator program provides pregnant and lactating people with advice and support, Lebel said. “Then we are less likely to have these cases arise, and these workers and students would be better off.”
Expanding program, multiple laws
The Women’s Law Project is a nonprofit organization, founded in 1974, that advocates for women, girls and LGBTQ+ people, with offices in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.
Since 2017, WLP Navigator has advised over 100 pregnant and lactating clients from its Philadelphia office.
“Many clients are unfamiliar with the specific laws that apply to them — especially those navigating a first pregnancy, pregnancy-related disability or need for leave,” said Sophia Elliot, a staff attorney for WLP’s Philadelphia office.
There are federal and local protections for those who are experiencing pregnancy and lactation discrimination.
- The federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 bars discrimination on the basis of sex, including pregnancy, childbirth and other medical conditions.
- The federal Fairness for Breastfeeding Mothers Act, passed in 2019, states that public buildings with restrooms “must contain a lactation room or space that is hygenic and available to mothers to express their milk.”
- The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, another federal law, was amended in 2010 to require that employers “provide their employees a reasonable break time to express their breast milk for nursing their child for up to one year.”
- On the local level, Pittsburgh Councilwoman Erika Strassburger passed a bill in 2019 prohibiting city employment discrimination based on pregnancy, childbirth or other related medical conditions.
From ‘dream job’ to discrimination complaint
Tiffani Shaffer grew up loving animals and wanted to be like one of the investigators on the show “Animal Cops.” She found criminology through a course in college and chose the police force instead.
Graduating from the police academy in 2012, Shaffer began her career in law enforcement at the Butler County Sheriff’s Office before joining the Cranberry Township Police Department in 2017. She said working for Cranberry was her “dream job.”
In 2018, Shaffer became pregnant. She notified Cranberry’s human resources manager and later provided a note from her doctor, saying that she needed to be placed on light duty due to her pregnancy.
“I had looked into other cases of light duty and what was given to those other officers,” Shaffer said. “I had a conversation with the [police] chief and specifically asked for the same duties, which he denied me.”
Shaffer filed a discrimination charge with the EEOC. The chief then “actually took duties off of me that I was authorized by my doctor to perform, such as criminal fingerprinting” and background checking for firearms permits, Shaffer said.
“[The chief] said that he wasn’t comfortable with me going to court or in the field in any capacity, which again, other individuals on light duty did the same exact thing,” Shaffer said.
She also felt she was not being given the same scheduling as other officers who were not pregnant but were on light duty. “My hours were severely reduced throughout my pregnancy,” Shaffer said. “There were several weeks where I wasn’t scheduled for anything and didn’t work anything or very little.”
Cranberry officials, including Chief Kevin Meyer, did not respond to requests for comment.
EEOC rules require that parties try to resolve their differences, allowing them to proceed to federal court – as Shaffer did – if they can’t settle.
In its answer to the complaint Shaffer filed in federal court, Cranberry’s lawyers wrote that the township made efforts to respect Shaffer’s doctor’s orders, but could not guarantee 40 hours of work per week under those guidelines. The township denied that it retaliated against Shaffer for filing an EEOC complaint.
Shaffer and Cranberry recently reached a settlement. She is glad that the case is finally over after four years, and said she is a stronger person for fighting for equality in the workplace.
“I could have just been like, ‘Well, I guess this is it. I’m not going to get hours, this is it,’ and I could have left,” she said. “But, I did it and I fought for what is right, which is equality for women, specifically pregnant women.”
She decided to stay with Cranberry, in light of pension vesting requirements. “You have to stay 12 years before being vested, including an age requirement of 55 years old in order to retire and a requirement of 25 years of service,” she said.
Shaffer hopes to one day share her experience with her daughter, Kaia.
“I want her to know that it’s OK to fight for what’s right,” Shaffer said. “I want her to never be ashamed of that because to be perfectly honest, for a while during this process, I felt ashamed. I felt like I did something wrong.”
She and her husband would like to have another baby. “The fear of being discriminated against again, it still lingers, or the fear of being retaliated against for going this route is always in the back of my mind,” she said.
Communicate first, litigate if necessary
It’s unclear whether a program like WLP Navigator could have prevented years of litigation between Shaffer and Cranberry, but much of the program is focused on avoiding misunderstanding, rather than going to court.
When a pregnant or lactating person reaches out to WLP Navigator, the first step is a confidential intake. “We’re always encouraging people if they have questions about their rights or if they want to talk through their case to get in touch with us,” Elliot said.
WLP Navigator can help to educate employers or educators on the accommodations they should make. Some common examples of accommodations include:
- Temporary short-term leave to recover from childbirth
- Limiting the amount of weight lifting at work
- Working remotely if there is a pregnancy-related disability
- Providing modifications for those who can’t stand for long periods of time
If a student decides to reach out to WLP asking for guidance, “they will have rights to reasonable accommodations like a larger desk or access to an elevator in their building,” Elliot said.
Lebel did a presentation in the past for the Pittsburgh chapter of the Employee Assistance Professionals organization. “We talked about what we are doing [at WLP] and they were like, ‘Wow, we didn’t even know this existed,’” she said.
WLP generally does not expect that a person will move forward with legal action. But in cases in which discrimination has already occured, Elliot said they represent clients and help them file complaints in the appropriate jurisdictions.
Lebel added, “Let’s say something does result in litigation or needs a full-blown hearing. If we can’t take it on from a capacity standpoint, we are connected enough that we can find you somebody that can.”
Suing, though, is not WLP’s goal. Reducing discrimination is.
“We don’t expect the everyday person to know whether or not they have a claim or have been discriminated against. That’s why we are here,” Elliot said. “To provide that confidential consultation to evaluate whether someone has been legally discriminated against or, if they haven’t been discriminated against, how to maneuver a difficult situation and talk through the best options for them.”
Emily Sauchelli is a PublicSource editorial intern. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story was fact-checked by Terryaun Bell.
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