Discrimination against women and mothers can come in a wide range of forms. Some forms are more subtle, such as employers hesitating to hire women of childbearing age because of the risk of pregnancy and related medical leave. Other times, discrimination against women for their reproductive health issues is overt, with bosses or co-workers mocking or refusing to accommodate the medical needs of a pregnant worker.
One of the ways that employers discriminate against female employees is by refusing to accommodate a new mother's needs for nursing or pumping breast milk. After the birth of a baby, a woman's body naturally begins the process of making milk to sustain the child. There are many health benefits associated with nursing or breastfeeding, including losing pregnancy weight, bonding with the baby and improving the brain growth and immune system of the infant. Mothers who choose to provide this for their new child shouldn't face workplace discrimination.
Lactation, like pregnancy, is a protected medical condition
Federal laws about discrimination are very clear about the fact that certain medical conditions should not factor into employment decisions, including hiring, promotions, terminations and wage increases. Pregnancy is one of those protected medical conditions, as is lactation. A lactating new mother could choose to provide breast milk for her infant for six months or a year and still receive protected status.
For a new mother, inability to nurse or pump breast milk is physically painful. Pressure builds up, causing pain and swelling. In some cases, leaks can occur, which are both embarrassing for the mother and a source of bodily fluid exposure for other workers. Nursing mothers should not have to cope with extreme pain or discomfort. Their employers should make reasonable accommodations to provide for their needs while nursing or pumping.
Employers should accommodate breastfeeding mothers
Breastfeeding mothers need a private location to express milk for their infant's food and their own physical comfort every few hours. Generally, this means two to three times in a typical eight-hour work day. One of those sessions could overlap with the mandatory lunch break. Employers must allow for additional breaks as needed, although they can be unpaid breaks.
In addition to providing a nursing mother with time for pumping or breastfeeding if there is daycare on site, employers should provide lactating staff with a private room. This could be an unused office or a conference room. It may not be a bathroom, and it should not be a space visible to other staff while in use. Failing to provide these very basic accommodations could result in claims of discrimination. As pregnancy and lactation are protected medical conditions, employers should do their best to assist lactating mothers returning to work.