Rights of Lactating Women

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The Ohio State Supreme Court ruled this past Thursday that the state law banning discrimination against pregnant women cannot be used to protect a woman who was taking unauthorized breaks to pump her breast milk. The ruling did not deal with the issue of whether lactating women should be protected under the same law as pregnant women.

If the mother, LaNisa Allen, had sought accommodation for her situation and the company (Totes/Isotoner) had refused to give her any, she would have had grounds to sue based on the pregnancy discrimination law, thus forcing a ruling to be made about lactating women.  The sole dissenting judge, Justice Paul Pfeifer, wrote that the court should have made such a ruling anyway instead of dealing only with Allen’s dismissal.

I agree that Allen should have sought accommodation but what if she had and Totes/Isotoner had refused? Perhaps she knew from past practice that the company would not have accommodated her, so in an effort to continue to nourish her baby and keep her job, she attempted to handle it by pumping on the sly. I’m not saying that she made the right choice. I am saying that this is a choice that she shouldn’t have had to make.

I know that if lactating women were allowed to take extra breaks to pump their milk, there would be an outcry from people who don’t think women should be given special accommodations for anything to do with pregnancy or child-rearing. As if pumping milk was restful. (They ought to try it some time.) But in this less-than-child-friendly nation, women are all too often told that they chose to have children, so why should others have to bear the consequences of their decisions?

What I would like to know and the article didn’t say was if she received a warning or other disciplinary action first or if she was just fired outright without any chance to redeem herself. I would take issue with that, but I guess there’s no law that says that employers have to go through some kind of disciplinary process before they can fire someone.  (And there is no mention of a union which could have defended her rights.) Then again, maybe Allen had other problems which contributed to her dismissal.

The bottom line is that this is an issue that will have to be dealt with in the courts at some point, probably on a state-by-state basis. Do women have the right to breastfeed or not? Or should they be required to put their babies on the bottle if they’re going to work outside of the home? Another way to put it, of course, is do babies have the right to receive the best nourishment they can get or must their health be compromised when their mothers work? And, are poor mothers who have no choice about working going to be forced to use formula while wealthier women are free to breastfeed?

Apparently no one has asked if Totes/Isotoner would have accommodated Allen if she had asked them to. My guess is not unless they had been forced to by the law.

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Ellen Keim

Ellen is a freelance writer, essayist and copy editor, living with three cats and a husband in Columbus, OH.

2 thoughts on “Rights of Lactating Women”

  1. The answer is technically “yes” but basically “no.”

    Here is a link to the oral argument previews for the case:
    http://www.sconet.state.oh.us/PIO/oralArguments/09/0311/0311.asp

    Here are some excerpts:

    ” At the end of a new employee orientation session, Allen told the agency supervisor that she was still breastfeeding her five month old child, and would need to pump her breasts to empty them of milk during the work day. Allen asked that the company identify a private area at the warehouse with an electrical outlet where she could perform this activity. The supervisor contacted Allen at home later that day and told her that she had been assigned a 6 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. shift and could pump her breasts in the women’s restroom during her lunch break, which was scheduled for 11 a.m.
    After starting work at the plant, Allen, whose practice was to breastfeed her baby just before leaving for work at 5:30 a.m. and whose breasts subsequently re-filled with milk in 3-4 hours, found that her 10-minute break at 8 a.m. was too short to allow her to use the pump, but that waiting until her 11 a.m. lunch period caused her to become engorged with milk to the point of physical pain and leakage. After several days of this experience, Allen began taking an unscheduled restroom break at approximately 10 a.m. each day to use the breast pump.
    Approximately two weeks after she began taking these breaks, the agency supervisor she had spoken to at orientation came into the restroom and told Allen she was violating work rules by not waiting until her 11 a.m. lunch break to use the breast pump. Later that day Allen met with the Totes/Isotoner supervisor for her work area and asked if her 8 a.m. break could be extended from 10 to 15 minutes to allow her to use the breast pump at that time. After checking with higher management that afternoon, the Totes supervisor called Allen into her office at the end of her shift and told her that the company no longer needed her services. Allen asked if her firing was based on her use of the breast pump, but received no reply.

    1. Thank you, Andrea, for the link and the excerpts! This is information that should have been in the newspaper article to begin with. You made my post so much better by your addition.

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