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Rights Watch

The Case for Breastfeeding in Schools

By Rita Zeidner

The Patient Protection and Affordable Health Care Act of 2010 made it easier for women to breastfeed on the job. Is the same true for teachers who want to work while still lactating? What about students who are new moms? The answers may be surprising.

Since 2010, most U.S. employers have been required to provide reasonable break time for lactating employees to express breast milk. They also must provide a place—other than a bathroom—for working moms to express milk. The space must be shielded from view and free from intrusion from coworkers.

But there’s a catch. While experts generally agree that breastfeeding is best for babies’ health, the provisions that make breastfeeding possible apply only to employees who are covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). Since teachers and most other school employees are considered “exempt” from this law, it’s business as usual. That means no guaranteed breaks for pumping. And even if a teacher is able to steal away to pump, she may not have an appropriate place to do it. Ditto for students.

Meg Gruber, president of the Virginia Education Association, began lobbying Virginia lawmakers for lactating space after receiving complaints from teachers who returned to work after maternity leave and had nowhere to express milk.
“It was like it never crossed anyone’s mind that maybe as a system we should have a policy about how to deal with this,” Gruber told a television reporter earlier this year.

Two dozen other states, plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, also have laws generally supporting breastfeeding in the workplace, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

But NEA members don’t have to rely on lawmakers to create a good environment for breastfeeding. Many of the things that make breastfeeding in schools feasible are negotiable. These include:

  • Frequency of breaks
  • Amount of time allowed
  • How long after the birth of a child an employee who is nursing will be allowed breaks
  • Whether employees may be exempted from recess or lunch duty in order to nurse
  • Size of the nursing space and what it will include, e.g., a refrigerator, an electrical outlet, and a chair
  • Whether the space will also be made available to lactating students
  • Extending FLSA’s break requirements to “exempt” employees
  • How often the space (and refrigerator) will be cleaned, by whom, and what chemicals will be used
  • Whether your school will provide a lactation counselor and if so whether services will be available to both staff and students
  • Recordkeeping requirements, and
  • A policy prohibiting discrimination and retaliation against staff and students who ask for lactation accommodation.

If you are not familiar with the needs of nursing mothers, research the issue before approaching management. The Department of Health and Human Services has background materials that will help you enter into bargaining knowing, or prepared to discuss:

  • How many women at your school are likely to need lactation space.
  • Which department or officials will be responsible for lactation program oversight.
  • What resources are available to equip the lactation room.

Supporting new moms who want to breastfeed is the right thing to do. And because teachers and students will both miss school less often, it also makes good business sense. Plus, research shows such programs help improve retention, foster loyalty, and improve overall productivity.

Rita Zeidner is an award-winning journalist in Arlington, VA.

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