Breastfeeding moms left without full legal protection, resulting in discrimination, job loss: report

A new report analyzes a decade of discrimination cases and takes a hard look at the patchwork of laws which don’t cover every mother in every job.

More than 27 million female workers of childbearing age nationwide go without the basic protections needed by breastfeeding workers, according to Exposed: Discrimination Against Breastfeeding Workers, a new report from Pregnant at Work, a Center for WorkLife Law initiative.

The report is based on “a nationwide analysis of breastfeeding legal cases from the last decade,  interviews with workers who faced discrimination, and new data on the coverage of laws designed to protect breastfeeding workers.”

Despite the overwhelming health benefits of breastfeeding, working mothers are often forced to choose between breastfeeding for the doctor-recommended six months to a year and continuing to work.

Breastfeeding discrimination takes several forms, including:

  • denying pumping break requests from employees who are in pain or leaking milk;
  • firing lactating workers for ask for pumping breaks
  • refusing to provide privacy, which can leaving workers to pumping milk in unsafe or unsanitary conditions

Such discrimination against breastfeeding workers can cause them to stop lactating, which risks the health of the baby. When breastfeeding workers are denied the right to express milk in peace, “many face serious health consequences, including illness and painful infections, diminished milk supply, and weaning earlier than doctors recommend,” according to the report.

Left out

Federal and state lactation laws are a patchwork quilt that don’t quite cover everything.

The Civil Rights Act’s Title VII is now used to prevent employers for firing, harassing, or retaliating against workers who breastfeed or pump at work. But it’s imperfect, and can’t “provide accommodation rights when workers need them most,” according to the report. Many states have filled in the cracks left by federal law – for example, a little over half of states have enacted legislation for additional rights, like requiring public school boards to maintain lactation policies, to broader laws that would give overall rights to every lactating employee in the state.

Still, nationwide, 27.6 million women of childbearing age don’t get the basic protections needed by breastfeeding workers, such as break time, private space, and any other reasonable accommodations.

The Break Time for Nursing Mothers law (passed in 2010) allows many employees the right to a break and a private space to pump milk for their nursing child during the first year of its life.

But not all lactating women have the right to pump when they need to, and in a private space – and the law can be difficult to enforce. The Break Time for Nursing Mothers law excludes over 9 million women over childbearing age, including workers like teachers, registered nurses, transportation workers, managers, certain professionals, farmworkers, and others.

“It was just such a struggle,” said Kate Frederick, a nurse who worked in a prison of her time secretly pumping on the job, in an interview for the report. She said that while her coworkers could go across the street to get coffee, she couldn’t go across the street to nurse her baby. “They didn’t seem to care about any of the health risks to me or my son.”

Case studies

When breastfeeding discrimination legal cases from the last decade were examined, it was found that:

  • Nearly 74% of breastfeeding discrimination cases resulted in financial harm due to retaliatory action or refusal to accommodate.
  • 63% ended in job loss, either from termination (43%) or because the employee was forced to resign (20%).
  • These numbers are only from the women who sought legal action and do not include the women have been fired or harassed that did not seek legal action.

Breastfeeding discrimination is most common in male-dominated industries, like police, firefighters, first responders, construction, and EMTs. Women in male-dominated industries make up 16% of workers, but register 43% of all breastfeeding discrimination claims.

“This is not 1950. There are female officers, and we need to be able to pump,” said Simone Teagle, an NYPD officer in an interview for the report, who recalled that some days she was forced to pump in her car, exposed to the public, in uniform.

The good news

The report makes a number of suggestion for changes that would fill in the holes of current lactation laws and policies to cover every mother and mother-to-be. Meanwhile, read our guide to surviving breast pumping at work, and take inspiration from recent pumping-at-work heroes: Larissa Waters, the Australian lawmaker that pumped in Parliament in 2017, and Rachel McAdams, who made waves by pumping milk while wearing Versace while being photographed for a fashion magazine.

Sheila McClear|is a reporter for Ladders and can be reached at smcclear@theladders.com.