Lawsuit Alleging Denial of Maternity Leave for Puppy Is Satire, but Pregnancy Discrimination Is No Joke

A story about a Canadian woman who sued her employer for denying her maternity leave made the rounds of social media in early October 2014. The story’s hook was that the woman had adopted a puppy rather than giving birth. It was quickly revealed that the story was the work of a satirical radio show. While it had some small basis in fact, there was no lawsuit, and there are few, if any, protections for pets under employment statutes in Canada or the U.S. Canada’s system affords considerable protections for pregnancy and childbirth, but pregnancy discrimination remains a serious problem in the United States, with an incomplete legal framework to protect employees before, during, and after childbirth.

The Canadian network CBC ran a story on October 2, 2014 about a woman in Ontario who sued her employer for denying her maternity leave after she adopted a Bichon Frisé puppy. She claimed that caring for a puppy “is a full-time job,” and that she deserved the same rights as a new parent. The story was completely fabricated, of course, but it had some basis in fact. A Vancouver woman had described herself in June as taking “maternity leave” to care for a puppy she had purchased from a breeder. The puppy had become severely ill shortly after she brought it home, and it was revealed that the breeders had a history of animal cruelty charges. The “maternity leave” was actually vacation time the woman had already accrued.

Canada’s pregnancy discrimination laws, much like those in the U.S., treat it as a form of sex discrimination. Human Rights Act, R.S.C., c. H-6, § 3(2) (Can.). New mothers in Canada may take 17 to 52 weeks’ leave, with the amount based on factors like length of employment. Employers must accept them back at the same rate of pay. Either parent may take up to 15 weeks’ paid leave. New parents may also receive benefits through insurance plans operated by the provincial governments.

The United States has no nationwide system of paid parental leave, although the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) provides for up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave. Employees are protected from discrimination based on “pregnancy, childbirth, and related medical conditions” under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) of 1978. The law does not specifically define “related medical conditions,” but it has been interpreted to include ordinary conditions resulting from childbirth, such as lactation, as well as unforeseen complications. Disability law offers employees only limited rights to accommodations for pregnancy-related conditions.

The “puppy maternity leave” story also raises the question of what rights, if any, an employee has with regard to a pet’s illness or other condition. The short answer is none, since no matter how much a pet may be part of the family, the FMLA and other statutes say otherwise. Employers may use their discretion to allow an employee to use other forms of leave, such as sick leave, for this purpose, but no statute defines any specific rights. In Florida, a state senator introduced a bill to amend a law, which allows three days of leave if the employee or a family member is a victim of domestic violence, to include pets in the definition of “family member.” The bill did not pass.

The pregnancy discrimination attorneys at Phillips & Associates represent the rights of workers in the greater New York City area against unlawful employment practices. To schedule a free and confidential consultation with a knowledgeable and skilled advocate, contact us today online or at (212) 248-7431.

More Blog Posts:

Supreme Court Will Consider Whether Pregnancy Discrimination Act Requires Reasonable Accommodations for Pregnant Employees, New York Employment Attorney Blog, September 24, 2014
State Laws, Proposed Federal Law Require Reasonable Accommodations for Pregnant Employees, New York Employment Attorney Blog, August 14, 2014
EEOC Updates Pregnancy Discrimination Guidelines for First Time in Over Thirty Years, New York Employment Attorney Blog, July 17, 2014

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