A recent lawsuit the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) filed against cosmetics company Estée Lauder reveals a new twist on how a well-meaning employer is vulnerable to a lawsuit over parental leave. In this action, the EEOC alleges that the company’s parental leave program unlawfully favors new moms and discriminates against new fathers in violation of federal job bias laws and equal pay laws. New dads entitled to same amount of leave as new moms according to this new EEOC lawsuit.
The facts of the case are not in dispute. In June 2015, one of Estee Lauder’s male employees notified the company of the birth of his biological child and his intent to take “primary” caregiver leave. Estée Lauder policy offers employees paid leave for childbirth and baby bonding, as well as flexible return-to-work benefits at the end of the leave. However, mothers and fathers received different benefits. New mothers received six weeks of paid parental leave for baby bonding, while new fathers received just two weeks of paid baby bonding leave, except in a surrogacy situation where the father was the “primary caregiver.” In such cases, fathers also received six weeks of paid leave. Estée Lauder rejected the new dad’s request for six weeks of paid leave despite the employee’s stated intention to be the child’s “primary” caregiver.
The lawsuit alleges that the company violated Title VII and the Equal Pay Act by providing “biological fathers inferior parental leave benefits than it provided to biological mothers, based on sex, though such fathers and mothers performed equal work involving equal skill, effort, and responsibility . . . .” The lawsuit seeks an injunction against the company stopping the practice, compensatory damages in the form of back wages and for emotional distress, and punitive damages.
Unlike California law, which mandates 4 months of pregnancy disability leave, the federal law (Title VII) only requires that such leave be offered in such amounts as the employer offers leave for any other disabling medical condition. That leave can be paid or unpaid. While employers lawfully can provide pregnancy-related benefits exclusively to female employees, the EEOC’s position is that baby bonding is a biologically neutral activity. Accordingly, both fathers and mothers should be able to utilize bonding benefits in the same manner. New dads entitled to same amount of leave as new moms according to the EEOC ruling.
The EEOC has made clear that addressing sex-based pay discrimination and equal benefits is a top priority. As more employers continue to provide generous parental leave benefits to employees, it is important for companies to be mindful that their policies must be crafted in a way to avoid gender discrimination claims.
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