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When Working Moms Ask for Breast-Pumping Accommodations, We Often Get Fired

When Megan Hertz* went back to work after the birth of her first child, she was forced to breast-pump in a file cabinet her co-workers used throughout the day—even though she was entitled by both New York state and federal law to a private space to pump. She never reminded her employer about her rights or asked for better accommodations.

“I wasn't so much concerned about what they would think—more that I would be let go,” she told Working Mother.

A new report proves that’s a very valid fear. Researchers at the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California, Hastings College of Law, studied breastfeeding discrimination cases filed by workers over the last decade, and found that in two-thirds of those cases, the mom lost her job. She was either fired (43 percent) or forced to resign (20 percent).

And many moms who didn’t lose their jobs still faced financial hardship, like being forced to work reduced hours or having to take unpaid pumping breaks. Overall, three out of four breastfeeding discrimination cases involved economic loss.

“We’re experts in the field, and we were shocked by what we found,” Liz Morris, a co-author of the report and leader of the Nursing Mothers Law Project through the Center for WorkLife Law, told Fortune.

Thanks to the Affordable Care Act’s Break Time for Nursing Mothers law and a host of new state laws, millions of women across the country now have the legal right to a private space (that’s not a bathroom) and time to breast-pump at work. But almost all of those laws all suffer from one fatal flaw: There’s no penalty for non-compliance. That means employers face no real consequences for, say, stuffing nursing moms in file cabinets.

The report also notes that technicalities in the Break Time for Nursing Mothers law means 27.6 million women workers of childbearing age nationwide don’t have basic protections for breastfeeding—time, space and a clear right to receive other reasonable accommodations.

The cases involved many jaw-dropping forms of discrimination: denying pumping breaks to moms who were in pain and leaking milk; firing them just for asking; refusing to provide privacy and leaving workers to pump milk with their breasts exposed to coworkers, clients and the public; and commenting on their “tits,” comparing breastfeeding workers to animals, and mooing at them.

The discrimination was worse in male-dominated sectors. Even though only 16 percent of women work as first responders, law enforcement or in another male-dominated industry, 43 percent of breastfeeding discrimination claims came from those industries.

The authors do point out that workers who experience job loss may be more likely to pursue legal claims—meaning the numbers are not necessarily representative of all employees who face breastfeeding discrimination. “But these data confirm that breastfeeding accommodations are not only a health issue, but an economic one as well,” the report states.

And many of the breastfeeding discrimination cases were tangled up in a pattern of unfair treatment that began during a woman's pregnancy and carried on throughout her maternity leave and into her return to work—proof of a maternal bias that other studies have shown begins before women even get pregnant.

In the case of an insurance company employee in Iowa, her supervisor made negative comments throughout her pregnancy and expressed annoyance when she requested an accommodation for pregnancy complications. He eventually used her request to pump as an excuse to fire her. In another case, an elementary school teacher in Colorado became subject to strict scrutiny by her supervisor after she announced her pregnancy. She was required to reschedule prenatal care appointments, denied permission to take more frequent bathroom breaks, frequently contacted while out on maternity leave, denied adequate breast-pumping breaks and, lastly, terminated at the end of the year, with the explanation that she was “not a good fit.”

To help curb breastfeeding discrimination, the report recommends new legislation with universal coverage, strong mechanisms of enforcement and no employer exceptions.

“Workplace lactation laws signal that breastfeeding is an important health issue and send the message that workplaces must take women's needs, as well as men's, into account,” the report concludes.

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