By Rights... Answers to Your Human Rights Questions

Column 16

In this column:

  • A Mother's Right to Nurse at Work
  • Lack of Seniority Lesds to "Unfair" Treatment?

A Mother's Right to Nurse at Work

Is it legal and/or OK for a nursing woman to nurse her baby in the office where she works?

This woman does not believe in vaccinating her infant. The other people in the office have been told they will not be allowed to come to work if they have any form of contagious illness. This includes all and any illness such as cold, flu, HIV, STDs, herpes, cold sores, etc. If an employee is out sick they must bring a letter from their doctor verifying they are not contagious because the health of the baby is more important than the employee. I think the nursing mother should nurse elsewhere. What right does an employee have in this matter?

The Commissioner says:

Although another state law (Chapter 181.939) requires an employer to provide unpaid break time for an employee to express breast milk, nothing in the state Human Rights Act (Chapter 363A) requires an employer to allow an employee to bring her baby to work and breast-feed on the premises, nor does that Act prohibit an employer from making such an accommodation. So yes -- from the perspective of the Human Rights Act -- it is legal for a woman to nurse her baby in the office (with her employer's permission), and allowing an employee to breast-feed would not necessarily violate the rights of any other employee.

There is the potential, however, that an employer's overly-broad inquiries into the health status of other employees could violate the Human Rights Act's disability provisions. Under the Act, an employer may ask an employee for medical information for the purpose of assessing the employee's continued ability to perform a job. But questions about colds, flu, HIV, STD's, herpes, cold sores, etc. would seem to go beyond that employer need, and some questions about contagious diseases could result in an employee being required to reveal information about a disability. If that were the case, such questions would be illegal under the Act.

Whether this particular employer's polices violate the Act, and whether you or other employees would have standing to bring a charge of discrimination, would depend on the specific facts of this case. If you would like to pursue this matter further, contact our Intake unit at 651-296-5663 or 1-800-657-3704.

Lack of Seniority Lesds to "Unfair" Treatment?

My friend just started at a company two months ago. A few days ago, my friend and another worker got into a disagreement. The guy claimed that my friend was threatening to physically harm him, which my friend denies. The company didn't really investigate or hear my friend's side. They just told him that he was fired because they got this complaint and didn't want it to escalate. The other was suspended but not fired. Is there anything my friend can do? He feels that he was treated unfairly and because this other guy had been with the company for five years, they didn't fire him. Also, if his company has a three-month probation period, does this affect anything?

The Commissioner says:

Minnesota is considered an "at will" employment state, which means that in general, an employer can fire an employee at any time for any reason, whether or not the employee has completed a probation period (just as an employee can generally quit a job at any time for any reason). The employer doesn't need a "good" reason, and doesn't have to be "fair" or hear both sides of an argument in a dispute between two co-workers. What an employer can't do is discriminate on the basis of a characteristic (or "class") protected by the Minnesota Human Rights Act. It appears from your letter that your friend may have been treated differently because he was new on the job, and the other worker had been there much longer. That kind of differential treatment might not seem fair, but it is not illegal under the state Human Rights Act.

The answers in these columns are not intended as legal advice. The Department of Human Rights does not make a judgment on any case without carefully examining all the facts.

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