When I returned to work as a staff writer at some newspaper in Los Angeles, I sat on the floor in a bathroom stall to pump breastmilk for my then 3-month-old son while my colleagues went to the bathroom, pounded on the door and occasionally complained about me occupying the stall. It was the only outlet I could find in a private location since there wasn’t a nursing room available. The incidences eventually resulted in my separation with that company. Based on a completely unscientific poll on social media, my experience was either unusual or the worst of it among breastfeeding moms returning to work after their child’s birth.
But based on a new, actually scientific study, I would have been in the company of more than half of women who alleged their employer did not provide workplace accommodations for them as nursing moms. In fact, a whooping two-thirds of cases alleging breastfeeding discrimination over the past decade led to the employee losing her jog, the first-of-its kind study found.
We’ve long known that when employers fail to provide adequate accommodations for breastfeeding, it creates health risks for nursing employees and their babies. Now we know the damages can actually extend to mothers’ livelihoods.
“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 Law at the University of California San Francisco, said in an interview with Fortune.
Breastfeeding discrimination includes all manner of offenses: denying break requests from employees who are in pain and leaking milk, firing workers for asking for breaks, refusing to provide privacy for workers who need to pump breast milk, and sexual harassment as others in the workplace comment on employees’ breasts. The Affordable Care Act was supposed protect workers with a clean place to pump, 15-20 minute breaks to do so, and a change in duties or temporary reassignment if necessary. But according to a 2016 study, employers routinely break the law when it comes to breastfeeding moms.
For example, one police officer in the study was unable to wear a bulletproof vest while breastfeeding, but was denied a temporary desk job.
Because of these discriminatory consequences, nursing mothers end up weaning earlier than doctors recommend, with a diminished milk supply, or with painful infections—the health risks often associated with the lactation discrimination.
It is unfortunate. Putting more effort into meeting nursing employees’ needs not only benefit moms and babies, but has an upside for companies, too—in addition to the legal high ground, employers end up with cast savings from improved employee retention, reduced sick time, and lower health care costs when they provide what breastfeeding employees need up front.
To learn more about the business case for accommodating breastfeeding, click here to sign up for the “A Right, Not a Privilege,” SDCBC’s mini-seminar on breastfeeding and the law.