Teacher forced to express breast milk in ‘dirty’ toilets was victim of harassment, tribunal finds

Judge says school created a ‘degrading or humiliating environment’ which a woman who has recently given birth should not be subjected to

Image credit: Cassio_Henrique/iStockphoto/Getty Images

A teacher was a victim of harassment related to sex after she was made to express milk in the toilets or her car when working at the school, a tribunal has ruled.

The Hull tribunal heard that Ms T Mellor found it “unhygienic and disgusting to have to express in the toilets, which were often dirty” and that she had “no other choice” than to use her car or the bathrooms.

Employment Judge Miller concluded that Mirfield Free Grammar (MFG) School’s conduct had the effect of “creating a degrading or humiliating environment” for Mellor and that she had “no other option” as to where she could express.

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Mellor, a teacher at MFG school, part of the MFG Academies Trust in Mirfield, West Yorkshire, had her first child in 2018.

In September 2019, she told the school that she was pregnant for the second time. On 16 March 2020, before going on maternity leave, she sent a letter to the chair of governors, who was also the executive principal, making a flexible working request and asking for access to a room to enable her to express regularly when she returned.

Mellor gave birth to her child on 19 April and her flexible working request was confirmed on 21 May. 

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Ahead of her return to work, she wrote to the school on 19 June to finalise details and said: “It is important to make you aware that I will still be breastfeeding when I return… I may need a room to express in but I do not plan to feed [my baby] on a lunchtime from September.”

Between 2 and 6 July, Mellor discussed Covid precautions with Ms Horodczuk, her line manager at the time, and Ms Haldenby, the school’s director of HR. She was told breastfeeding her baby at the school was “not an option” as the school could not allow her partner to bring her baby onto the grounds due to pandemic restrictions.

Mellor told the tribunal that, in her first few weeks of teaching, she had numerous conversations with Horodczuk about how she was “in need of somewhere to express and that [she] was pain (sic) not being able to express”.

The tribunal concluded there were no measures in place in September and that, when she was not able to feed her baby at lunchtime, Mellor was in discomfort and would need somewhere to express.

The school’s principal told the tribunal there were lots of free rooms, implying that there were many rooms out of use which Mellor could use to express milk at her discretion. However, the tribunal rejected this and said it would not be reasonable to expect Mellor to “just wander into rooms at random”, particularly in the context of a pandemic.

Mellor went off sick between 16 and 23 September. During this time, she spoke to another HR adviser on the phone and said that she needed a place to express during the day. But, the tribunal found there was no evidence any further steps were taken to address the problem.

When she returned to work on 30 September, Mellor met with Horodczuk and again said she needed a place to express. Horodczuk said they would discuss it soon in a formal return-to-work meeting, but no such meeting occurred. 

Mellor then told the tribunal that from this point onwards she used the toilets or her car daily, at lunchtime, to express. 

“As I wasn’t allocated any time to express, I had to do it at lunchtime and eat my lunch at the same time,” she told the tribunal. “I found it disgusting to have to eat my lunch in toilets, which were often dirty.”

The tribunal concluded that Mellor believed she had no option as she had asked on a number of occasions and had been left with the impression the issue would be picked up.

Mellor started shielding from Covid-19 on 6 November until 16 December. In the week before her return, and again when she started working, Mellor asked for a room to express, but she had to continue expressing milk in the toilet during her lunchtime.

From January 2021 Mellor started shielding again.

Judge Miller said that Mellor “genuinely and reasonably had no choice but to use the toilets or her car to express” and had made the school aware on numerous occasions but nowhere was provided. “The alternative was that the claimant would experience an embarrassing leakage in the afternoon,” Judge Miller explained. “It is obvious that this is unacceptable.”

“In our judgement, the conduct did have the effect of creating a degrading or humiliating environment for the claimant,” the judge said. “We are aware of the seriousness of these words, but in our view a woman who has recently given birth should not be subjected to these circumstances solely because she has done so.”

As a result, the tribunal ruled that the claim of harassment was successful and the school failed to respond to Mellor’s requests, and particularly so given the school had made arrangements after Mellor gave birth to her first child.

Mellor’s also made claims of direct and indirect discrimination, but these were unsuccessful and dismissed. There will be a separate remedy hearing at a later date.

Paul Kelly, head of employment law at Blacks Solicitors, said the case highlights the need for employers to give genuine consideration to the needs of new parents.

“Employers need to engage with breastfeeding staff to discuss what their requirements are as a failure to do so could open employers up to claims of harassment,” he warned, advising firms to introduce provisions to ensure women who need to express milk have arrangements to do so in privacy.

Paul Holcroft, managing director of Croner, agreed that employers should still provide suitable space for employees breastfeeding their children. 

“While there are no specific rules that say employers have to let their employees breastfeed at work, there is the risk of discrimination or harassment claims being raised if there aren’t genuine reasons why they can’t do so,” he explained, adding that toilets will not automatically be seen as suitable facilities for breastfeeding or expressing.

Mellor and MFG School have been contacted for comment.