We’ve long known that when employers fail to provide adequate accommodations for breastfeeding, it creates health risks and headaches for nursing employees. But according to a new, first-of-its kind study, the damages can actually extend to mothers’ livelihoods: A whopping two-thirds of cases alleging breastfeeding discrimination over the past decade led to the employee losing her job, the researchers discovered.
“We’re experts in the field, and we were shocked by what we found,” says Liz Morris, a co-author of the report and leader of the Nursing Mothers Law Project through the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California, Hastings College of Law.
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. Workers are supposed to be provided with a clean place to pump, 15-20 minute breaks to do so, and a change in duties or temporary reassignment if necessary—like one police officer in the study who was unable to wear a bulletproof vest while breastfeeding and 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 lactation discrimination.
The researchers knew about those severe health risks—but they were shocked by the extent of the economic harm caused. In addition to the two-thirds of employees in these discrimination cases who ended up losing their jobs through firing or being forced to resign, another measure shows that three-quarters of workers in that group experienced some kind of economic penalty, whether by working reduced hours or going unpaid during their 15-minute breaks.
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Another crucial finding: breastfeeding discrimination is the worst in male-dominated industries. Only 16% of women work in an industry that’s considered male-dominated, but 43% of breastfeeding discrimination claims came from those industries.
Breastfeeding discrimination is also intimately connected to other forms of discrimination against women, and especially against mothers. The accommodations and equipment required draw more attention to an employee’s role as a mother, increasing bias and skepticism about her abilities to do her job.
“The thing breastfeeding discrimination has in common with sexual harassment and pay inequity is that it jeopardizes women’s economic security,” Morris says. “Women are literally losing their jobs over feeding their babies, and job loss can have harsh economic consequences for years to come in the same way sexual harassment and unequal pay can have harsh economic consequences for women.”
The key problem is that workers have legal rights when it comes to breastfeeding, but those laws are patchwork around the country and hard to enforce in court. The federal legislation protecting breastfeeding workers, the Break Time for Nursing Mothers law, leaves out one-quarter of working women of childbearing age, or more than 9 million women.
Morris and her co-authors urge new legislation with universal coverage, strong mechanisms of enforcement, and no employer exceptions.
Putting more effort into meeting nursing employees’ needs has an upside for companies, too—in addition to the legal and moral high ground: employers end up with cost savings from improved employee retention, reduced sick time, and lower health care costs when they provide what breastfeeding employees need up front.
“There’s a strong business case for accommodating breastfeeding,” says Morris. “There is a return on investment for companies.”