Teachers who are breastfeeding are expected to soon have the guarantee of a private place and reasonable break times to pump breast milk under legislation poised to be signed by President Joe Biden.
The Providing Urgent Maternal Protections for Nursing Mothers Act, which passed the Senate 92-5 this month as an amendment to the government funding bill, expands breastfeeding accommodations in the workplace to all salaried employees—a change from the previous federal law, which only applied to hourly workers. Teachers have long said that finding the time and privacy to pump breast milk for their babies at school is exceedingly difficult, if not impossible.
“One of the biggest groups of workers who were left out of the [previous] federal lactation protections were teachers, and hearing from teachers about their really horrific experiences managing breastfeeding and work is a large part of what pushed people to demand the PUMP Act,” said Jessica Lee, a senior staff attorney at the Center for WorkLife Law, an advocacy and research organization based at the law school of the University of California Hastings. “This is a big win for educators.”
Teachers have shared stories of pumping breast milk in supply closets, bathrooms, or in classrooms with no guarantee of privacy. Many have also said they’ve had to go more than a few hours without a chance to pump, which can cause their milk supply to dwindle or lead to painful plugged ducts and breast infections.
The PUMP Act requires employers to provide breastfeeding workers a place to pump that’s shielded from view and is not a bathroom. It also requires employers to allow for reasonable break times for an employee to pump throughout the workday for the first year of their baby’s life. The break time is to be considered hours worked, so it should not affect compensation.
About half of states already have similar laws on the books that protect teachers, but this is the first time a federal law on pumping will protect all employees in K-12 schools. (Employers with fewer than 50 employees may be exempt from the requirements if they would cause “undue hardship” to the business.)
The ability to pump at school affects a large swath of the teacher workforce. About 77 percent of public school teachers are women, and many are of childbearing age. The average age of teachers is 43, according to federal data.
And in the United States, more than 80 percent of mothers try to breastfeed upon their baby’s birth, but many stop within a few months. Decisions about whether and how long to breastfeed are personal and are based on a variety of factors, but experts say that not having support to pump after returning to work can cause a woman to stop breastfeeding before she’s ready.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends exclusive breastfeeding for about six months after birth, and supports continued breastfeeding (along with solid foods) “as long as mutually desired by mother and child for two years or beyond.” The group says that breastfeeding has positive outcomes for both mothers and babies.
Teachers say that breast pumping at school doesn’t feel safe
Whitney Aragaki, a high school science teacher in Hilo, Hawaii, was a first-year teacher while pumping breast milk for her eldest child, who is now 12. She would pump during recess, lunch, and after school, as long as she didn’t have a meeting. But it wasn’t enough. Aragaki developed mastitis, a painful infection of breast tissue, because she wasn’t expressing breast milk as frequently as she needed to.
And then there was the issue of privacy: Twice, a student entered her classroom while she was pumping.
“It was kind of overwhelming to have to cover up in a classroom that’s supposedly locked and still not feel like I was safe in the space,” she said, adding that her principal suggested she pump in the restroom as an alternative. (She declined.)
Lee said she has heard from many teachers who have left the profession because they felt like they weren’t able to teach and maintain their milk supply.
“Feeding your baby and taking care of your health is number one, but at the same time, these educators are so committed to their students,” she said. “It’s truly devastating for a teacher when unsupportive policies make them choose between their baby and their students—it’s cruel.”
In most states, teachers also typically don’t receive paid parental leave. Instead, teachers have to cobble together saved sick days and unpaid leave, and many return to work before they’re ready. Lactating parents tend to need to express breast milk more frequently when their baby is young, Lee said.
“If they’re denied the break they need, they can get really sick, really fast,” she said.
Schools will now need to figure out coverage issues
Lee said the most common issue that she hears from educators is the lack of coverage to take a pumping break. Breastfeeding teachers shouldn’t have to search for coverage when needed; it should be pre-established, she said.
Yet many schools have struggled to fully staff classrooms throughout the course of the pandemic, amid teacher vacancies and substitute shortages. Lee said she’s worried that schools are not prepared to put into place new routines for their breastfeeding employees.
The law will go into effect with the stroke of Biden’s pen, and “now it’s going to be the responsibility of the principal or whoever HR dictates to make sure that the teacher has some backup to take the breaks they need,” she said.
Some schools have already figured out solutions to accommodate their employees. Adam Lane, the principal of Haines City High School in the Tampa Bay area of Florida, said he builds pumping breaks into the school year’s master schedule.
Since most breastfeeding teachers know their plans in advance, he can make sure that a teacher who needs to pump will have their planning period in between the start of school and lunch. If they also need a break to pump in between lunch and the last bell, Lane said he will accommodate that, too.
And if teachers end up needing to pump during the school year after the schedule was already created, they can rely on the buddy system, he said. A teacher down the hall could cover for a teacher who needs to pump—and then the breastfeeding teacher could return the favor another time.
“When someone needs a helping hand, ... I’ve found everyone’s always willing” to pitch in, Lane said, adding that he focuses on fostering those collegial relationships as a principal.
Meanwhile, teachers say they’re excited to have these protections enshrined in federal law. Aragaki, the teacher in Hawaii, said that after the birth of her second child, she made a point to advocate for herself to have the privacy and number of breaks that she needed.
“I was very insistent, and I tried my best to breastfeed as long as I could and pump as long as I could because I felt that if I advocated [for myself] during that time, it would be better for someone else,” she said.