Estée Lauder and EEOC Agree to Settle Sex Discrimination / Parental Leave Case
California employers must understand the multitude of laws affecting time off for the birth of and bonding with children. At the federal level, it all started with the Family and Medical Leave Act, or FMLA which provides for 12 weeks of unpaid leave for the birth or adoption of a child. The FMLA also allows time off for an employee's own serious health condition, including any pre- and post-birth health issues that the mother may have. That fact alone suggested to some employers that mothers need more time to deal with the birth of a child than fathers. This is true with regard to paid pregnancy-disability leave but not the fact with paid child-bonding leave.
Estée Lauder Companies, Inc. is one of the world's leading manufacturers and marketers of skin care, makeup, fragrance and hair care products. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) alleged in a lawsuit that the company violated federal law when it implemented and administered a paid parental leave program that automatically provides male employees who are new fathers lesser parental leave benefits than are provided to female employees who are new mothers. Estée Lauder and the EEOC agreed to settle the case earlier this year, however the terms of the settlement were not disclosed.
Bottom Line: Employers should ensure that their policies distinguish between disability leave following childbirth, which applies only to biological mothers, and bonding leave, which the EEOC has stated cannot distinguish between mothers and fathers under Title VII.
The EEOC case against Estée Lauder arose when a male employee working as a stock person in an Estée Lauder store in Maryland sought parental leave benefits after his child was born. He requested, and was denied, the six weeks of child-bonding leave that biological mothers automatically receive, and was allowed only two weeks of leave to bond with his newborn child. Such conduct violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII) and the Equal Pay Act of 1963, which prohibit discrimination in pay or benefits based on sex.
According to the suit, in 2013 Estée Lauder adopted a new parental leave program to provide employees with paid leave for purposes of bonding with a new child, as well as flexible return-to-work benefits when the child bonding leave expired. Under its parental leave program, in addition to paid leave already provided to new mothers to recover from childbirth, Estée Lauder also provides eligible new mothers an additional six weeks of paid parental leave for child bonding. Estée Lauder only offers new fathers whose partners have given birth two weeks of paid leave for child bonding. The suit also alleged that new mothers are provided with flexible return-to-work benefits upon expiration of child bonding leave that are not similarly provided to new fathers. The EEOC sought back pay and compensatory and punitive damages on behalf of the aggrieved class members, as well as injunctive relief.
It has becoming increasingly common for employers to offer paid leave to new parents even though the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) does not require an employer to pay an employee who is taking this leave. In fact, according to the Society for Human Resource Management's (SHRM's) 2017 Employee Benefits survey, on average, organizations that offer paid leave for a new child provide 41 days for new mothers and 22 days for new fathers. Notwithstanding the fact that Estee Lauder was not required to offer any paid child bonding leave to males or females, the EEOC took the position that by not offering the same benefit to men and women, Estes Lauder was discriminating against men.
California, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Washington and New York City currently have paid-leave statutes that cover parental leave and other family-related leave. Further, many states have laws on pregnancy-disability leave, accommodation and parental leave. Some cities and counties do as well and these laws can require either paid or unpaid time off. If an employer has employees in multiple locations, it should make sure that its parental-leave policy complies with all local laws.
Numerous employers still make a distinction in their parental-leave policies between primary and secondary caregivers. The EEOC lawsuit and the resulting settlement should not deter companies from implementing paid-child-bonding-leave policies, however employers should ensure that these benefits apply equally to all new parents.
The preceding case highlights the number of parental leave and paid time-off laws California employers must fully understand. Should you have questions about FMLA, parental leave, or sex-based discrimination don't hesitate to contact leading California employment lawyers at Kingsley & Kingsley. Call and speak to an experienced California lawyer toll-free at (888) 500-8469 or contact us via email.
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