How Working Mothers Are Impacted By Breastfeeding Discrimination

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How Working Mothers Are Impacted By Breastfeeding Discrimination
New research examines breastfeeding discrimination cases from the past decade.
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For new mothers who work, choosing to breastfeed can be challenging — especially if workplaces aren't set up to allow women to pump privately.

New research suggests that over the past decade, two-thirds of cases involving breastfeeding discrimination in the U.S. ended in mothers losing their jobs. 

The research from advocacy group Pregnant at Work shows this discrimination comes in many forms: employers not approving pumping breaks, firing mothers who ask to get pumping breaks or not providing safe and clean spaces for mothers to pump.

And not allowing mothers to properly pump at work has consequences. While not all mothers can breastfeed, the World Health Organization recommends those who can do so for at least the first six months because of the lasting health benefits for babies.

Not allowing women to pump can also put them at risk for infection or inhibit future milk production.

But there are more than just health consequences.

One of the study's authors told Fortune: "The thing breastfeeding discrimination has in common with sexual harassment and pay inequity is that it jeopardizes women's economic security. Women are literally losing their jobs over feeding their babies, and job loss can have harsh economic consequences for years to come."

So how are breastfeeding discrimination cases happening? To answer this, we need to look at the current laws and some of their limitations.

There is a national "Break Time for Nursing Mothers" law that's meant to ensure mothers can get pumping breaks and a private space other than a bathroom to pump in for up to a year after giving birth. Companies with less than 50 employees can be exempt. 

The Break Time law is also restricted by certain older laws, since it includes language about payment for overtime work. Those restrictions end up leaving millions of women unprotected.

Women's rights advocates question if employers are held accountable and if the Break Time law is enforceable. 

There's also Title VII, which does offer some protections for breastfeeding mothers in the workplace in the form of anti-discrimination measures. Title VII can also grant transgender men and gender-nonconforming people breastfeeding protections.

But keep in mind: Title VII mainly offers protections for those who are discriminated against because of breastfeeding. It does not protect employees who aren't able to get spaces or time to pump. 

On the state level, protections vary. Some states do offer protections to fill the gaps in federal laws, but most states don't mention an appropriate pumping space or break accommodations.