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Helena OlivieroHelena Oliviero

Dirty bathrooms, no privacy and breastfeeding

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A HuffPost story published today, “Dirty Bathrooms, No Privacy: The Horrifying Struggles Of Breastfeeding Moms Who Need To Pump At Work,” stems from a reporter Dave Jamieson’s Freedom of Information Act request with the Department of Labor, asking for all complaints by workers about bosses who don’t allow space or time to pump at work, as the law requires.

105 closed cases were reviewed, spanning from March 2010, when the Obamacare provision went into effect, until late 2013. The files show that moms who work outside the home face a predicament: they are told by health professionals and society at large that breastfeeding is the right thing for themselves and their babies, yet they still aren’t always granted the on-the-job flexibility they need to make it work.

HERE IS TOP OF THE HUFFPOST PIECE:

In February 2012, a fast-food worker returned to her job at a McDonald’s restaurant in Grand Island, Nebraska, after three months of maternity leave. As a nursing mother, she was determined to continue breastfeeding. As a working mother, that meant she would have to pump her breast milk at work, store it and then take it home to her baby.

Her right to do so was protected under federal law, as a provision of the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare. Under the 2010 law, employers must give eligible employees “reasonable” break times to express milk for a nursing baby, for up to a year after the baby’s birth. They must also provide a clean, private location that isn’t a bathroom. The law considers bathrooms an unsanitary place to handle what is, after all, food for an infant.

The managers supervising the McDonald’s employee ignored those rules repeatedly, a Labor Department investigator later found.

Even though she obtained a doctor’s note stating she needed to express milk for her child — at her manager’s insistence — the woman wasn’t given access to a private room. The employee break room had no door or curtain to keep people from walking in on her, so she was forced into the restaurant’s public bathroom.

The worker filed a complaint with the Labor Department, saying her rights as a nursing mother were being violated. Within days, a manager forbade her from pumping milk anywhere in the restaurant, according to the Labor Department investigator’s findings.

The woman was forced to clock out and walk 15 minutes each way to a public library whenever she needed to pump milk. This was worse than inconvenient — it was financially damaging. The investigator determined that the worker had lost $81.24 due to those trips to the library.

Her manager dropped her hours from 20 to 7.25 for at least one week, a schedule change the investigator deemed an “apparent retaliatory action” in response to the worker’s complaints.

As a result of the investigation, McDonald’s agreed to pay back wages to the worker and restore her hours. The company also agreed to set up a portable tent in the break room to provide her with a space for pumping milk out of co-workers’ view. The investigator determined that the violations were not intentional, but were instead “due to naivety of the front line manager.”

The McDonald’s file was one of 105 cases reviewed by The Huffington Post as part of a Freedom of Information Act request for investigations into nursing-mother complaints. The cases spanned from March 2010, when the Obamacare provision went into effect, until late 2013, and only closed investigations were released. The names of the women who filed the complaints were redacted, but the names of the companies and their officers were not.

The nursing-mothers provision covers only those hourly workers who fall under the Fair Labor Standards Act, the same set of employees who are eligible for minimum wage and overtime protections. Many salaried workers are currently exempt from the law. The complaints filed by workers therefore tilted heavily toward the low-wage end of the economy, particularly the retail sector.

The case files show that moms who work outside the home face a predicament. They are told by health professionals and society at large that breastfeeding is the right thing for themselves and their babies, with the American Academy of Pediatrics recommending breastfeeding exclusively for the first six months of the baby’s life. Yet women still aren’t always granted the on-the-job flexibility they need to make it work. But they have to try, because the Family and Medical Leave Act covers only 12 weeks of unpaid leave.

Among the more visible companies whose workers’ complaints were ultimately substantiated were Starbucks, Walmart, Dollar General, Dillard’s, Sunglass Hut, Meijer, Outback, Anthropologie, Lowe’s and the Salvation Army. McDonald’s had two such claims filed against it — one by the worker at the corporate-owned store in Nebraska, another by an employee at a franchise in California. The company didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Awareness of the law is extremely low. Only 25% of respondents correctly said that employers are required under the law to provide workers with a space for pumping breast milk. What is has been your experience? What do you think should be done or needs to be done to address this issue? do you think it’s getting better or worse?

 

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