Family Matters

Should Pumping at Work Get You Fired? ACLU Says No

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In theory, how a mother feeds her baby is up to her. Breast-feeding? Pumped breast milk? Formula? Maybe some of each, but a woman’s decision should not be dictated by her employer, argues the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which has taken on the case of a Colorado teacher it says was fired for asserting her right to express milk at work.

Heather Burgbacher nursed her first baby for a year, as the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends, and she planned to do the same for her second. But in February — despite favorable performance reviews — she was notified that her contract as a technology teacher at the Rocky Mountain Academy of Evergreen (RMAE) would not be renewed.

“She was told it was because of conflict over her pumping schedule, that she was no longer a good fit,” says Galen Sherwin, staff attorney with the ACLU Women’s Rights Project.

Following mediation, Burgbacher had arranged for a teacher’s aide to supervise her classes for a total of one hour each week — 10 minutes during each of two classes she taught three days a week — so she could pump breast milk. “Students did their typing exercises during that time, so no educational time was being lost,” says Burgbacher, 36, who says that she would have had to wait five to six hours to pump had she not arranged for a break. Mothers typically express milk every three to four hours.

Months later, she was fired, after she says she was advised to give her baby formula. “To be told by my HR director to stop pumping and start supplementing floored me,” says Burgbacher.

Kelli Anderson, an RMAE board member, said she couldn’t speak in depth about the claims. “Rocky Mountain Academy of Evergreen denies all ACLU allegations,” says Anderson.

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Many working women may have the flexibility to take the 10 to 20 minutes required to pump whenever they need to, but teachers and other workers, like bus drivers and doctors, who don’t have the freedom to schedule regular breaks or gain access to a private place to pump, may find it particularly difficult to continue doing so. “Teachers face humiliating and unthinkable challenges to pumping at work,” says Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, executive director of MomsRising, a grassroots organization that advocates for family-friendly policies.

Burgbacher originally shared her story with MomsRising earlier this year when the group was compiling comments about workplace pumping to forward to the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL). The government was soliciting advice from employees, employers and breast-feeding advocates about how working mothers might best implement a U.S. law requiring employers to provide “reasonable” break time and a private place other than a bathroom where a working mom can express breast milk for her nursing baby. “Her story was so compelling and such an obvious overlooking of her rights that it was clear further action should be considered,” says Rowe-Finkbeiner. “There’s no reason for Heather or any mother to choose between breast-feeding their babies and returning to work.”

MORE: Is Breast Milk the Key to Mother-Baby Bonding?

In February, I wrote about the DOL asking the public for advice about the law, passed last year as part of the healthcare reform package (it applies only to hourly and not salaried workers, but earlier this month, the Breastfeeding Promotion Act of 2011 — a new federal bill that would extend the provisions to all employees, regardless of their status — was introduced):

One ER physician told of pumping at the hospital in the doctors’ “call room,” where, on occasion, “other physicians blew past my sign and walked in on me, on their way to the bathroom. They may be doctors, but they are still my colleagues, and they were pretty embarrassed at seeing my breasts exposed.” She told of “silent pressure” from nurses and doctors to hold off pumping and keep seeing patients until her breasts became painfully engorged and leaked milk. “Ultimately,” she wrote, “I stopped nursing much sooner than a year because I felt so much resistance to my pumping that I couldn’t keep it up adequately to maintain my milk supply.”

Burgbacher refused to let that be her fate. Many women may have groused to friends and spouses about their difficulties at work, but Burgbacher decided to pursue legal action. The law appears to be on her side: three years ago, her home state of Colorado passed legislation safeguarding the rights of nursing mothers to express milk at work. “It was too important to me,” she says. “I was outraged that this could happen.”

Bonnie Rochman is a reporter at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @brochman. You can also continue the discussion on TIME‘s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.