January 26, 2021
TRENTON, NJ (MERCER)–Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal announced yesterday that the Division on Civil Rights (DCR) has issued a Finding of Probable Cause against national retailer America’s Best Contacts & Eyeglasses, Inc. for allegedly subjecting a former employee to discrimination based on her pregnancy and for failing to provide her with a suitable place to express breast milk.
A Finding of Probable Cause means that DCR has concluded its preliminary investigation of a civil rights complaint and determined there is sufficient evidence to support a claim that a state anti-discrimination law has been violated.
America’s Best is a discount provider of eye examinations, eyeglasses and contact lenses with 700 stores nationally, including 15 branch locations in New Jersey.
Jalaia Hill, a former employee at an America’s Best store in Burlington, filed a complaint with DCR alleging unlawful pregnancy-based discrimination by the company after returning from maternity leave to learn her hours had been cut from full-time to part-time. The reduction to part-time status also eliminated her from eligibility for employer-provided healthcare coverage.
Hill also alleged that America’s Best failed to reasonably accommodate her request for a place to express breast milk. Specifically, Hill told DCR, she was forced to use an oft-accessed utility room that did not have a lock on the door and that was filled with boxes of supplies. She alleged that while expressing milk she was forced to lean up against the unlocked door in an attempt to ensure privacy, yet she would still be periodically interrupted by workers who walked in to obtain supplies. She also alleged that she was frequently ordered by her manager to “hurry up and finish” because there were customers waiting.
“New Jersey is committed to protecting the equal rights of pregnant employees and breastfeeding employees,” said Attorney General Grewal. “New Jersey law goes farther than federal law when it comes to protecting pregnant and breastfeeding employees and employers must ensure they know what state law, as opposed to federal law, requires.”
“Employers cannot punish employees for having children or taking parental leave, and being forced to express breastmilk in a room without a lock on the door, with colleagues walking in and out, while being reprimanded to ‘hurry up and finish,’ would be a clear violation of the LAD,” said DCR Director Rachel Wainer Apter.
Hill began her employment with America’s Best as a full-time sales associate in May 2018, earning an hourly wage plus sales commissions. Because she worked more than 30 hours per week she was considered full-time, and received healthcare benefits for herself and her children.
Hill took maternity leave beginning on November 19, 2018 and returned to work on March 4, 2019.
In her complaint, Hill alleged that in February 2019 – only days before she was scheduled to return to her full-time sales associate position – she had a telephone conversation with her manager in which he informed her that only part-time hours were available because another employee had taken over her hours while she was out on leave.
According to Hill, she was never restored to full-time hours, despite also informing the company’s district manager of her situation, and despite an alleged promise from that same district manager to arrange additional work hours for Hill at the Audubon store to qualify Hill as a full-time employee.
Three of Hill’s Burlington store co-workers corroborated Hill’s assertion that she was a full-time employee before she went on maternity leave, but that her hours were reduced upon her return. (Time sheets obtained by DCR showed that Hill worked an average of 34 hours per week prior to her maternity leave, but worked an average of only 28 hours a week after returning.)
As to the failure to provide her an adequate place to express breastmilk, DCR’s investigation showed that America’s Best eventually installed a lock on the utility room door where Hill was forced to express milk on May 29, 2019 – nearly three months after Hill’s return to work from pregnancy leave.
In its response to Hill’s complaint, America’s Best denied having discriminated against Hill.
The New Jersey Division on Civil Rights enforces the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination and the New Jersey Family Leave Act, and works to prevent, eliminate, and remedy discrimination and bias-based harassment in employment, housing, and places of public accommodation throughout New Jersey. To view a fact sheet on pregnancy and breastfeeding discrimination, go to https://www.nj.gov/oag/dcr/downloads/fact_BRST.pdf. To find out more information, go to http://www.njcivilrights.gov.