By David Warner
In August 2017, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) brought a class action lawsuit against cosmetics giant Estée Lauder alleging 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. The suit alleged that, under the company’s parental leave program, in addition to paid leave already provided to new mothers to recover from childbirth, new mothers were provided an additional six weeks of paid child bonding leave for child bonding. In contrast, the plan only provided new fathers with two weeks of paid child bonding leave.
Recently, the EEOC and Estée Lauder reached a settlement in the matter. While the terms of the settlement remain confidential, it is highly likely that the resolution required the company to equalize child binding leave as between mothers and fathers. This would be consistent with the EEOC’s guidance that, given the prohibition against gender-based discrimination under Title VII, if bonding leave is offered to employees men and women must be able to take equal amounts of that leave.
While some commentators have suggested that parental leave policies should no longer have varying levels of benefits for “primary” and “secondary” caregivers, such distinctions would not appear to conflict with Title VII or the EEOC’s guidance so long as they are administered without regard to an employee’s gender. Further, greater leave for “disability” arising out of childbirth is similarly seen as legitimate and non-discriminatory even if it has the practical effect of providing greater leave benefits to bother as opposed to fathers.
Parental leave policies are an attractive benefit for employees; but, given the EEOC’s recent success with Estée Lauder, employers are well counseled to review their policies to ensure that disability or maternity-related leave is clearly distinguished from bonding leave and that bonding leave, if provided, is equally available to both mothers and fathers.
About the Author:
David Warner is a seasoned legal counselor with extensive experience in the resolution and litigation of complex employment and business disputes. His practice is focused on the government contractor, nonprofit, and hospitality industries. David leads Centre’s audit, investigation, and litigation practices.
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