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Failure to make adjustments to accommodate breastfeeding mothers cost EasyJet £29K

When 2 cabin crew employees asked EasyJet Airline to roster them for a maximum of 8 hours, the airline failed to take adequate account of medical evidence and to adequately risk assess their work with respect to express milk.

When 2 cabin crew employees asked EasyJet Airline to roster them for a maximum of 8 hours, the airline failed to take adequate account of medical evidence and to adequately risk assess their work with respect to express milk. 

All employers are under a duty to risk assess the workplace in relation to a breast feeding employee, and indeed there is a risk of mastitis if breastfeeding women go for long periods without expressing milk. Two crew made flexible working requests that they not be rostered to fly longer than 8 hours, but EasyJet, citing roster difficulties and the possible impact unexpected delays could have on this (and suggesting at one stage in the hearing that they could ‘do it in the toilet’) refused, eventually it assigned them to ground duties for a period.

An employment 0tribunal was extremely critical of EasyJet’s handling of the requests and in awarding £29K between the two ladies for indirect discrimination (injury to feelings and lost earnings) it pointed out:

  • Out of the 350 flight employees operating from Bristol, one was already on an adjusted rosta, with no adverse operational impact on the airline – adding 2 more would not seem unfeasible, and the airline’s insistence that meeting the adjustment could cause operational chaos was not based on any visible facts

  • The risk assessment (with respect to breastfeeding) had not been adequate

  • Both ladies doctors had written letters asking the airline to limit their working to 8 hours, EasyJet did not take adequate account of that advice

  • EasyJet existing risk assessment made it clear that the toilet was not acceptable as a place for expressing milk

  • The EasyJet manager cross examined at the hearing conceded that a low number of people on adjusted rosters would not adversely impact the airline’s ability to operate efficiently.

So what can small employers learn from this case?

  • Do risk assess the workplace for returning/breastfeeding mothers to identify a suitable area for the expressing of milk – and remember that a toilet is not normally the solution (in the unlikely event that an area or adjustment can’t be found, a woman may as a last resort be suspended on full pay on health and safety grounds)
  • If expressing can’t be safely carried out, consider what temporary adjustments might be possible – discuss this with the employee
  • Be objective and honest when considering adjustments – find ways to support what’s possible rather than scrabbling for ways to say ‘no’

Lastly of course, if you do refuse, and a tribunal claim results, do try to ensure that managers who will attend the tribunal are fully familiar with the reasons for the refusal and prepared to withstand cross examination on these.

It’s impossible to define a list of reasonable adjustments as every work place will differ, but as an example, the provision of a lockable clean and warm room near washing facilities would be one. Where long shifts are required, allowing a sufficient break for the purpose of expressing milk would be another.

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