Sun Country Airlines knew when they hired Ms. Hani Ali that she would need to be able to pump and store milk for her newborn second child. Instead, Sun Country not only failed to provide adequate facilities for her to do so, but also neglected to act as coworkers bullied her over her pumping breaks and supervisors denied her desirable work assignments because of her pumping needs.
In November 2023, Gender Justice and Lockridge Grindal Nauen PLLP took action — suing Sun Country on Ms. Ali’s behalf for violating her right as a nursing parent under Minnesota law.
“Sun Country Airlines responded to a mother’s entirely reasonable requests for a place to pump and store milk for her new baby with a relentless campaign of bullying, discrimination, and retaliation that left her no choice but to leave a job she wanted to keep,” said Sara Jane Baldwin, senior staff attorney for Gender Justice.
“With this lawsuit, we’re putting Sun Country and all employers on notice that Minnesota’s strong protections for women in the workplace will be enforced, and that the reprehensible treatment endured by this new mother will not be tolerated anywhere.”
Ms. Ali joined Sun Country’s team at Minneapolis International Airport in September 2021, five months after giving birth to her and her husband’s second child. The airline’s poor treatment of her began even before her first shift, when supervisors told her there was no designated nursing room and that she should use the baggage claim office—a high-traffic area with large windows on the walls and doors.
Two months later, Ms. Ali—a practicing Muslim who needed to remove her hijab and expose her hair and breasts to pump milk—noticed a man staring at her through one of the windows. It was a coworker, and despite her efforts to wave him away, he continued to look at her while she was exposed and actively pumping, demanded that she leave despite her supervisors’ instructions to use the baggage claim room, and then left to bring back one of Ms. Ali’s supervisors with him, who told her to leave and use a public bathroom. The two men then filed a complaint with the company’s human resources department against Ms. Ali, and she was told she could no longer enter the baggage claim office for any reason.
This left Ms. Ali without a working refrigerator in which to store her breast milk and only one place to go when she needed to pump: a public nursing area inside the terminal, which she could only access by passing through security—an arduous and time-consuming process that added as much as 20 minutes of travel time to her pumping breaks and required security checks every time of her breast pump and the ice-filled thermos she now needed to carry to keep her milk cool enough to be safe for her baby.
As these forced inconveniences added to the length of Ms. Ali’s pumping breaks, her coworkers’ resentment and hostility increased right along with them. Supervisors stopped scheduling Ms. Ali to work inside the terminal—closer to the only place she could pump—and, when she asked one of them why, was told it was because of her pumping. Meanwhile, Ms. Ali’s repeated requests for intervention by Sun Country’s human resources team produced no improvements and inadequate communication from the airline’s administration.
Unable to cope with the constant stress of dealing with the bullying of her coworkers, the discrimination of her supervisors, and the inaction of Sun Country’s human resources team, Ms. Ali felt forced to leave her position and resigned in March 2022.
Minnesota law requires employers to provide breastfeeding parents with reasonable break time to express milk and a private room or other location for milk expression, other than a bathroom or a toilet stall, that is shielded from view and free from intrusion with access to an electrical outlet and in close proximity to the employee’s workspace.
In 2014, WESA was passed into Minnesota state law with the intention to break down barriers for women in the workplace. The statute codifies protections for nursing mothers in the workplace, requiring that employers must “provide reasonable unpaid breaktime each day to an employee who needs to express breast milk…[so long as it does not] unduly disrupt the operations of the employer.” Minn. Stat. § 181.939, subd. 1(a) (2014). It also requires that the employer “must make reasonable efforts to provide a room or other location, in close proximity to the work area, other than a bathroom or a toilet stall, that is shielded from view and free from intrusion from coworkers and the public…” Minn. Stat. § 181.939, subd. 1(b) (2014). The employer cannot retaliate against its employees for asserting these rights. Minn. Stat. § 181.939, subd. 1(d) (2014). Notably, WESA was updated during the 2023 legislative session to provide even more protections for nursing parents, evidencing a clear intent on the part of the legislature to make progressive improvements in this area.
Our lawsuit alleges that Sun Country violated Ms. Ali’s right to pump privately at work, and reprisal under the Minnesota Women’s Economic Security Act, a package of measures championed by Gender Justice and enacted in 2014 to strengthen workplace protections and flexibility for pregnant and lactating employees, expand employment opportunities for workers in high-wage and high-demand occupations, and reduce the gender pay gap through increased enforcement of equal pay laws. The lawsuit also alleges violations of the Minnesota Human Rights Act’s prohibition against sex discrimination in employment and retaliation against employees who assert their rights under the law.
We’re seeking damages on Ms. Ali’s behalf for lost wages, emotional distress, and mental anguish—as well as an injunction to ensure that Sun Country and other employers will not subject other new parents to similar treatment.
“In Minnesota, nursing and pumping parents have a legal right to be supported and protected against discrimination on the job, and Minnesota employers have a legal responsibility to protect them and provide the basic accommodations they need,” said Baldwin.
“Sun Country’s failure to do so for Hani Ali was egregious and comprehensive. They must correct the injustices that Ms. Ali suffered, and they must not ever be allowed to treat other parents this way again.”
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