Opinion
Recruitment & Retention Opinion

Stop Breastfeeding or Quit Teaching? The Terrible Choice Facing Many Teacher Moms

How to fight breastfeeding discrimination in education
By Jessica Lee & Liz Morris — March 20, 2019 4 min read
BRIC ARCHIVE
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

From buying classroom supplies to working long after the school bell rings, teachers make countless sacrifices for the sake of other people’s children. Few ever imagined they’d also be asked to sacrifice the well-being of their own children, but that is exactly what is happening to many teachers who breastfeed. As the national wave of teacher strikes and walkouts moves into a second year, there is one important issue of dignity for teachers that has been left out of the conversation: breastfeeding accommodations.

“By mid-day my boobs were so full that I just began leaking everywhere—soaked through my shirt and sweater,” Catherine, an elementary school teacher, told us during our new study on breastfeeding discrimination through the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law. While Catherine was willing to swallow the indignity of pumping in a closet or being walked in on by her colleagues, not getting any pumping break was too much to bear. “I started thinking, I’m here teaching these babies basic life skills, and I don’t even have the time to provide my own baby with food for survival.”

Nearly two-thirds of mothers who brought breastfeeding discrimination cases in the last decade lost their jobs.

In schools across the country, teachers like Catherine can be found huddled in closets, balancing their pumps awkwardly in toilet stalls, and hiding under their desks with their breasts out. “It is hard enough to find five minutes to take a bathroom break,” said one elementary school teacher we interviewed. “Pumping four times a day as a teacher is the hardest, worst, most stressful thing I’ve ever had to do,” said another.

Many teachers are left with no choice but to quit breastfeeding. Others, like Catherine, quit their jobs. Nearly two-thirds of all mothers who brought breastfeeding discrimination cases against their employers in the last decade lost their jobs, either because they were fired (43 percent) or forced to resign (20 percent), we found in our study. Those who didn’t lose their jobs outright often suffered other economic harms, like being forced to take unpaid leave.

Breastfeeding parents who are not provided reasonable accommodations also face health consequences, including illness, infection, and diminished milk supply. Some are forced to wean their babies earlier than doctors recommend. Infants who are not breastfed face worse health outcomes, including higher rates of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome and childhood leukemia. Their moms are at greater risk for breast cancer and heart disease.

Despite the harsh consequences of breastfeeding discrimination, federal law does not adequately protect breastfeeding teachers. Due to an unintended legal technicality, teachers are excluded from the protections of the Break Time for Nursing Mothers law, the federal requirement that employers provide workers with pumping space and break time. Because they aren’t covered by the law, many teachers struggle to get the basic accommodations they need.

Although other federal laws, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act and Title IX, prohibit firing or harassing a teacher because she is breastfeeding, those laws cannot be reliably counted on to provide break time and space to pump.

Given the federal government’s failure to provide adequate rights to teachers, some states have stepped in to fill the gap. Twenty-one states and the District of Columbia have laws clearly requiring break time and space for nearly all workers, including teachers. Other states have added to the patchwork: Texas and Montana cover public employees, while Louisiana and Virginia have passed laws specifically to protect breastfeeding educators.

Many administrators already realize the benefits of providing private pumping space and break time. Doing right by breastfeeding workers has been proven to reduce turnover, lower healthcare costs and the number of sick days taken, and boost morale—it ultimately saves money and keeps educators in the classroom. But all teachers deserve the dignity of breastfeeding accommodations, not just those fortunate enough to have an administrator with this foresight.

Including teachers, 27.6 million women of childbearing age in this country do not have the basic legal protections needed by all breastfeeding workers—a clear right to receive break time, space, and other reasonable accommodations.

In our recent report, we outline common-sense policy solutions to help teachers walk out of their closets and into clean, private pumping spaces. These include establishing clear space requirements that take the guesswork out of accommodating pumping workers and ensuring laws can be enforced in court. Critically, breastfeeding laws must cover workers in every industry and job title, including—at long last—teachers.

Providing basic accommodation for breastfeeding teachers is just one small and affordable way to give teachers the dignity at work they deserve.

Related Tags:

A version of this article appeared in the March 20, 2019 edition of Education Week as We Are Failing Teacher Moms

Events

Jobs Virtual Career Fair for Teachers and K-12 Staff
Find teaching jobs and other jobs in K-12 education at the EdWeek Top School Jobs virtual career fair.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Mathematics Webinar
What is it About Math? Making Math Figure-Out-Able
Join Pam Harris for an engaging session challenging how we approach math, resulting in real world math that is “figure-out-able” for anyone.
Content provided by hand2mind
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Reading & Literacy Webinar
Science of Reading: Emphasis on Language Comprehension
Dive into language comprehension through a breakdown of the Science of Reading with an interactive demonstration.
Content provided by Be GLAD

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Recruitment & Retention Video How Workplace Culture Can Affect Staffing Shortages
A recruiter and a teacher share possible solutions to ongoing teaching shortages in schools.
2 min read
Recruitment & Retention Letter to the Editor Teacher Housing Is a Critical Need in Native Communities
We can't forget about Indian lands school districts when talking about teacher housing, says this letter to the editor.
1 min read
Education Week opinion letters submissions
Gwen Keraval for Education Week
Recruitment & Retention Q&A What Will Teacher Shortages Look Like in 2024 and Beyond? A Researcher Weighs In
Tuan Nguyen has been collecting teacher-vacancy data for years now. He shares what he's learned so far and his forecast for future turnover.
6 min read
Illustration of an empty office chair with a sign on the back that reads "Vacant"
iStock/Getty
Recruitment & Retention Gen Z Lacks Job-Readiness Skills, Survey Shows
Prospective employers say Gen Z'ers aren't job ready. Here's what's behind it, and how to adapt.
5 min read
Senior engineer explaining machine functioning to his student
E+ / Getty