Pumped up: Breastfeeding mothers fight for rights at work
Matt Wittmeyer / for NBC News
Lyla, Bobbi Bockoras’ nearly one-year-old daughter, plays at the table at her Smethport, Pa., home. Bockoras filed a lactation discrimination lawsuit against her employer.
By Allison Yarrow, NBC News contributor
When Bobbi Bockoras returned to work at a Port Allegany, Pa., glass factory in June 2013 after giving birth, she planned to pump breast milk during breaks so she could continue nursing her infant daughter Lyla.
The 31-year-old palletizer operator knew that pumping at work — in a clean, private, non-bathroom space — was her right under a provision of the 2010 Affordable Care Act (ACA). “I was going to breastfeed, and no one was going to stop me,” she said.
But Bockoras says that Saint-Gobain Verallia North America, the company where she has worked for six years, did not follow the law. Supervisors first told her to pump in a bathroom, she says, and after she protested, they suggested alternatives that also failed to meet federal requirements. Bockoras agreed to use a locker room but says it was covered in dirt and dead bugs and lacked air conditioning.
Making matters worse, she says, she was harassed by colleagues who pranked her and banged on the door while she pumped. Bockoras called the treatment “defeating and exhausting.”
After she complained, Bockoras was temporarily reassigned to alternating day and overnight shifts that interfered with her feeding schedule and impeded her milk production, she claims in a civil suit filed on her behalf last month by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission (EEOC) against Verallia North America. It’s the first lawsuit brought by the ACLU under the ACA’s breastfeeding provision, which is the first federal law to require employers to accommodate nursing mothers on the job.
Courtesy of ACLU
When Bockoras returned to work after giving birth, she pumped in this room, which she says was dirty with dead bugs on the floor.
Bockoras’ case is one of a growing number of lactation discrimination lawsuits highlighting the need for more accommodation and acceptance for nursing mothers in the workplace, advocates say.
Despite overwhelming evidence supporting the health benefits of breastfeeding, “women who choose to continue breastfeeding when they return to the paid workforce face insurmountable obstacles that can make them choose between their jobs and what is in the best interest of their babies,” said New York-based ACLU senior staff attorney Galen Sherwin, who is representing Bockoras.
Bockoras’ lawyers argue that not only was she discriminated against and not accommodated under the law, but she was retaliated against when her shifts were switched. Verallia North America, which is headquartered in Muncie, Indiana, filed a motion to dismiss the case. The company is “committed to providing a respectful workplace” and “takes its obligations under the law very seriously and is committed to abiding by all federal and state employment laws,” it said in a statement.
Bockoras says her previous dayshift schedule has since been reinstated and that the locker room where she still pumps has been cleaned.
Does breastfeeding discrimination equal pregnancy discrimination?
Under the ACA provision, which amends the Fair Labor Standards Act, companies are required to provide “reasonable break time for an employee to express breast milk for her nursing child for one year after the child’s birth” and “are also required to provide a place, other than a bathroom, that is shielded from view and free from intrusion.” The provision also prohibits retaliation by companies when employees file complaints.
Prior to the ACA, nursing mothers who wanted to pump at work had few rights. An employer could refuse to allow a woman to express milk at work or fire her for doing so.
As more women become aware of their rights under the law, advocates expect lactation discrimination cases to proliferate. “Partly because the ACA offers a new avenue of relief that wasn’t available previously, we’re going to see more claims using that tool to vindicate the rights of women violated on the job,” Sherwin said.
While breastfeeding activists, or “lactivists,” welcomed the ACA provision, they also identified drawbacks. The provision only applies to companies who employ 50 workers or more, and only protects hourly workers, not salaried ones. Further, breastfeeding advocates say it’s unclear whether courts could actually force companies to abide the law. The provision includes no penalty for businesses that don’t comply.
The Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division, which investigates complaints under the ACA, can mediate between an employer and an employee, explain to a company what its legal obligations are, or file an injunction to require an employer to comply. It has no authority to fine employers who violate the law.
Since the ACA took effect, the division has concluded 169 investigations related to the nursing mothers provision and found 71 violations, a spokeswoman said.