By Galen Sherwin, ACLU Women's Rights Project, and Rebecca T. Wallace, ACLU of Colorado
Imagine you've recently come back to work after maternity leave and you're using every last minute of your break time to pump breast milk to feed your baby at home. You just need a little help from your employer — an extra 20 minutes a few times a week. But your employer refuses to help, and tells you that, instead of breastfeeding your baby, you should consider switching to feeding him formula. Worse yet — imagine that after you complain, you're fired.
That's exactly what happened to Heather Burgbacher, a technology teacher and coordinator at Rocky Mountain Academy of Evergreen, in Evergreen, Colorado.
Heather had taught at the school for almost five years, and had an excellent job performance record. She had pumped breast milk at work after a previous pregnancy with no need to miss any classroom time. (We should mention that women who choose to breastfeed have to pump regularly throughout the day in order to continue producing breast milk if they are away from their babies).
However, when Heather's second child was born, her back-to-back class schedule required her to miss 10 minutes at either end of her short break-time, at the end of one class and the beginning of the next. During that time, she had arranged for another teacher to supervise her students while they completed classroom assignments. This arrangement had been going on without incident for several months, when she was suddenly told by a supervisor that it was no longer working. Her supervisor told her to rearrange her pumping schedule, and when she informed the supervisor that she could not physically do that, she was advised to consider switching her baby to formula.
Heather did what you would hope she would do. She told her employer that she had a right to pump at work. And what was her employer's response? Heather was terminated, not because of any performance issues, but because of the "conflict" she had caused over her need to pump at work.
What the school did was illegal. Yesterday, the ACLU took legal action to hold it accountable. Colorado state law explicitly protects women's right to express breast milk at work and requires employers to make this type of reasonable accommodation. And antidiscrimination laws make it illegal to fire a woman on the basis of sex, including for reasons that are related to pregnancy and childbirth — like breastfeeding. A little-known section of the Affordable Care And Patient Protection Act — the new health care reform law — also protects nursing moms who are hourly workers, though that law does not apply in Heather's case.
These laws not only recognize the now well-known public health benefits of promoting breastfeeding, but also that our workplace policies need to make it easier — not more difficult — for moms who want (or simply need) to return to the paid workforce after having kids. That's a necessary ingredient for women's equality in the workplace.
Heather and her husband made the personal decision to feed their babies breast milk for the children's first year because they believed strongly that that was what was best for their babies. Moms who work outside the home should not have to choose between their jobs and their ability to provide this benefit to their children. And employers certainly should have no say in such a personal decision.