EasyJet cabin crew members have won a landmark Employment Tribunal sex discrimination claim against the airline after it failed to make suitable arrangements to enable them to continue breastfeeding after they returned from maternity leave.
The crew members asked for shorter shifts so that they could express milk before and after their shifts. The airline refused and instead offered them ground duties for six months, arguing that breastfeeding after six months is a choice, not essential. Their union argued that by doing so EasyJet was effectively making a decision for its employees as to how long they could breastfeed. It's reported that the Tribunal determined that EasyJet had failed to carry out its own risk assessment and had failed to take into account medical advice from the crew members' GPs.
Requests from employees for altered working arrangements need to be considered carefully, particularly where the reason for the request is linked to pregnancy, childcare, breastfeeding or medical grounds. All of these can give rise to discrimination claims if the request is refused. The case highlights the importance of having a good reason for any refusal and backing it up with evidence - EasyJet could have defended the claim successfully if it could have shown that its decision was justified. Instead, the Tribunal seems to have taken the view that EasyJet could have accommodated the employees' requests but failed to do so.
The rights of breastfeeding mothers have become a hot-button issue in recent years, with controversies over women asked to cover up in public places. Employers need to be aware of their duties to employees and mindful of the financial and reputational risks associated with discrimination claims.