Make history: protect pumping at work

I am an outraged ally of Donnicia Venters. If you haven’t already heard about this, she is the woman who was fired from her job in 2009 in direct response to requesting a place to pump breast milk for her newborn. She sued the company – a debt collection agency – only to have a judge rule that her rights were not violated. Reuters reports:

She received a termination notice in the mail a week later back-dated to February 16 citing “job abandonment,” said Tim Bowne, a lawyer for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, who represented her.

Venters sued the company but Judge Lynn Hughes last week dismissed the case, saying the complaint was not covered by a provision of the Civil Rights Act that prohibits discrimination because of pregnancy.

If I understand this case correctly, they sued on the basis that lactation is a pregnancy-related medical condition. If that’s true, the judge’s ruling is asserting that lactation, though a direct result of pregnancy is not a medical condition and is therefore not protected by the same rights.

I have to say, I agree with the judge…on that part, at least.

Lactation is not and should not be perceived as a medical condition. I think it is important to maintain this distinction, especially considering that passing on the information and wisdom to maintain successful breastfeeding is woman’s domain. The moment that we push lactation into the medical sphere is when we give power over to medical and pharmaceutical establishments to define its standards, norms and protocols. No, thank you!

Still, breastfeeding is irrefutably the best food for babies. That a mother makes it automatically after giving birth should make providing it a human right. Since Ms. Venters was fired from her job, the U.S. Department of Labor has amended the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) for moms to have greater flexibility. It now:

require[s] employers to provide reasonable break time for an employee to express breast milk for her nursing child for one year after the child’s birth each time such employee has need to express the milk. Employers are also required to provide a place, other than a bathroom, that is shielded from view and free from intrusion from coworkers and the public, which may be used by an employee to express breast milk.

This may have been just what Ms. Venter needed to protect her job postpartum. One must take a deeper look, though. It turns out that there are lots of mothers whose right to pump milk for their children is not protected by this amendment, including teachers, executives, administrators, professional employees, and those who do not have a high school diploma. These women’s right to time and a clean, private pumping space is still dependent on how accommodating their employers are.

Another bill, the Breastfeeding Promotion Act, was proposed in August 2011 and needs our support! Proposed by Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY14) to amend the Civil Rights Act of 1964, this bill is meant to provide reasonable breastfeeding time for all new mothers. The folks over at MomsRising have a form you can use to easily let your state representative know that you want her or him to support it. Read and sign the letter here.

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About Anayah

Anayah Sangodele-Ayoka writes and speaks about breastfeeding, maternal health, motherhood and personal empowerment. She works on breastfeeding campaigns with MomsRising, is a co-founder of Black Breastfeeding Week and co-editor of Free to Breastfeed: Voices of Black Mothers. Anayah is a mother of 2, wife and graduate Nurse-Midwifery/Women's Health Nurse Practitioner student at Yale University.