A Georgia woman is suing her former employer, with help from the American Civil Liberties Union, because she says she was unlawfully fired for leaking menstrual blood at work.
Alisha Coleman was employed in a 911 call center operated by the Bobby Dodd Institute, a job training and employment agency in Fort Benning. Her lawsuit alleges the institute terminated her for unpredictable menstrual symptoms that were related to the onset of menopause. Federal law prohibits workplace discrimination on the basis of sex, and specifically on the basis of "pregnancy, childbirth, and related medical conditions."
"Every woman dreads getting period symptoms when they're not expecting them, but I never thought I could be fired for it," Coleman said in a statement. "I don't want any woman to have to go through what I did."
The lawsuit comes as a groundswell of grassroots activists and lawmakers are working to improve basic rights for menstruating women. Many are trying to remove the stigma associated with periods and to make menstrual products more affordable, if not freely available, in workplaces, schools and other public places, such as libraries and prisons.
Advocates are also speaking out for more sensible and sensitive workplace policies. Inability to afford menstrual products can impact attendance and productivity for low-wage workers. Strict work schedules can also be problematic, if women cannot go to the bathroom when they need to.
"The ACLU is committed to fighting on behalf of all woman who want to be able to do their job free from discrimination,"said Sean J.Young, legal director for the ACLU of Georgia. "No woman should have to go to work worrying about whether her boss is monitoring her menstrual cycle."
According to a brief filed in the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, Coleman had worked at the call center for close to a decade when in 2015 she began to experience irregular and heavy menstrual periods, common symptoms of pre-menopause.
In August 2015, as a result of an unusually heavy period, Coleman leaked some blood onto her office chair. She reported the incident to her supervisor, who advised her to leave the office to change clothes. Subsequently, her manager and the human resources director warned her that she would be fired "if she ever soiled another chair from sudden onset menstrual flow," the brief says.
The following spring, during another heavy period, Coleman stood up to walk to the bathroom and leaked some blood onto the carpet. She cleaned up the spot with bleach and disinfectant, but a few days later she was fired. The stated reason for her termination was her alleged failure to "practice high standards of personal hygiene and maintain a clean, neat appearance while on duty," the document says.
A spokeswoman for the Bobby Dodd Institute, which works with people who have disabilities or disadvantages, declined to comment for the story, but issued a statement.
"While we cannot share specific details about this case because it's become a legal matter, please know there is more to this story than is being portrayed by those who are suing us," the statement says. "We can say we followed proper protocol and went the extra mile to avoid dismissal in this case, as we would for any of our employees."
In its motion to dismiss, attorneys for the institute argued that Coleman was not targeted because she was female, and that menstrual symptoms unrelated to pregnancy or childbirth are not protected by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, the law that prohibits discrimination against women.
The district court dismissed Coleman's case in June. The judge ruled that it was not clear that the employer's treatment of her "excessive menstruation was treated less favorably than similar conditions affecting both sexes." For example, the ruling said, it was not clear that "male employees who soiled themselves and company property due to a medical condition, such as incontinence, would have been treated more favorably."
The ACLU took up the case on appeal. The brief, filed last month, argues that the case should go to trial because it raises important legal questions about how the federal non-discrimination law is applied to women who are undergoing menopause.
"A heavy period is something nearly all women will experience, especially as they approach menopause, and Alisha [Coleman] was shamed, demeaned and fired for it," said Andrea Young, executive director of the ACLU of Georgia in a statement. "That's wrong and illegal under federal law. We're fighting back."