All Anna Johnson-Smith wanted was some time each afternoon to pump breast milk for her infant. But when she returned to work as a kindergarten teacher in Marlin, Tex., her principal denied her request, putting her in the position of choosing between her child and her career.
Two weeks into the school year, she quit. Since then, she has joined the ranks of current and former teachers in multiple states — including Texas, Virginia, Florida, Nebraska and Utah — who are advocating for the right to pump at work, seeking to close a loophole that leaves teachers and other salaried workers unprotected under federal law.
“A 15-minute break was all I was asking for,” said Johnson-Smith, now a stay-at-home mother and the owner of a photography studio. “We’ve come so far in our society in so many ways, and here in 2015, we’re still fighting for the right to provide breast milk for our babies.”
Breast-feeding rates are on the rise in the United States, perhaps at least partly because of the federal government’s efforts to educate the public about the health benefits of breast milk. Breast-feeding protects babies from ear infections and other illnesses, according to the surgeon general, and children who are breast-fed for at least six months are less likely to become obese. Mothers who breast-feed are less likely to suffer from breast or ovarian cancer.
With more than half of the nation’s mothers with infants working outside the home, that advice has led many women to try to pump on the job.
While pumping at work is a hassle for many women, for teachers, it can feel nearly impossible. Privacy is scant in a school building full of children, and classroom schedules are busy and inflexible. It is difficult to find a spare moment to run to the restroom, let alone enough time to pump.
Some teachers lean on colleagues or aides who are willing to cover their classrooms while they take refuge in a supply closet or an empty office. Some teachers pump at their desks during planning periods or lunchtimes, hoping that students and staff members observe the do-not-disturb sign on the door. Some work for principals who do their best to make the logistics easy.
Others, like Johnson-Smith, who resigned in fall 2012 after the May birth of her daughter, end up with a choice: Quit their jobs to keep breast-feeding their babies, or quit breast-feeding to keep working.
“In many school districts, it comes down to how supportive the principal is,” said Ann Seacrest, a lactation consultant and executive director of MilkWorks, a nonprofit breast-feeding center in Nebraska. Breast-feeding advocates say mothers shouldn’t have to depend on the largesse or understanding of their bosses.
Women who don’t remove milk from their breasts often enough risk painful engorgement or plugged ducts and infection, according to lactation experts. Perhaps more important, failing to pump frequently enough can cause a drop in milk supply that makes it frustratingly difficult — or impossible — to provide a baby with enough nutrition through breast milk alone.
Monica Howell, a high school teacher in Miami, said that when she returned to work last year, her assistant principal denied her request for a 20-minute break to pump toward the end of her first two-hour class of the day. The principal reversed that decision, allowing Howell the time she needed. Her students worked on written assignments while she pumped.
“You’re not always going to have a principal like mine, who was trying to help me,” she said. Even with his support, there were days when there was no adult to cover her classroom. Her breasts became painfully full, and she worried she would leak noticeably.
Howell brought the issue to her union, the United Teachers of Dade. The Miami-Dade County teachers’ contract signed in fall 2014 included a new provision guaranteeing teachers the right to a nonbathroom private space and “reasonable” time to pump.
“It was a victory for us,” said Karla Hernandez-Mats, the union’s secretary-treasurer. “This is a workforce that is predominantly women, and here we are taking care of everybody’s children in the community, but we’re not afforded the time to take care of our own babies? How fair is that?”
Of the approximately 3.5 million public schoolteachers in the United States, about three-quarters are women.
The federal Affordable Care Act protects mothers who are hourly workers by requiring their employers to provide time and space for pumping, part of the Obama administration’s broader effort to encourage breast-feeding. But the law does nothing to protect teachers or other women who work in salaried positions.
A growing number of states have passed laws to pick up the slack.
Virginia passed a law in 2014 specifically aimed at protecting teachers who pump; Louisiana did the same in 2013.
This year, Texas and Utah passed laws that require public employers, including schools, to provide nursing mothers with time and space to pump. Nebraska also passed a measure this year that requires any employer with more than 15 workers to allow pumping breaks unless doing so would cause undue hardship.
“There’s a recognition that this needs to be in legislation to protect teachers,” said Diana West, spokeswoman for La Leche League International.
Four years after the U.S. surgeon general issued a “call to action” urging doctors, communities and businesses to support breast-feeding mothers, teachers and many other salaried workers have no legal right to pump at work in more than half the states, including Maryland, according to state laws compiled by the National Conference of State Legislatures. The District requires employers to provide nursing mothers with a sanitary place to pump that’s not a bathroom and reasonable unpaid break time — unless the employer argues that such breaks would create an “undue hardship.”
Even in states where they are legally protected, teachers say the realities of working in a school make it tough.
Shelly Steely teaches social studies in San Diego, in a state where employers have been required to provide time and space for nursing mothers for more than a decade.
“Technically, you’re supposed to be able to take the breaks when you need them, but there’s not enough coverage at any school site to leave your classroom,” said Steely, who went back to work in November, when her daughter was 8 weeks old. “It’s unrealistic to have someone teaching half of one of my classes.”
Steely pumped at her desk during her planning period and lunchtime with a sign on her door that was disregarded more than once by students and custodians.
“I don’t know if you have ever talked to a teenager about nursing,” she said. “It’s kind of awkward.”
Sarah Anzelmo-Steele, a middle-school teacher in Richmond, said her principal was supportive when she returned to work after her maternity leave last fall, shortly after the state legislature passed a law requiring schools to allow teachers to pump. But even with the law and her principal’s goodwill, it was challenging to find a private place that would be reliably available.
Eventually, the school’s art teacher, who was pregnant, offered to let Anzelmo-Steele use the art supply closet. Anzelmo-Steele said she would pump just before school started, sometimes running down the hall to get to class on time. Her breasts were so full that they were sore by the time she was able to pump at lunch at 12:30 p.m.
She pumped again when she had her planning period, after 1:30 p.m. It was not ideal to pump twice in quick succession after such a long stretch without pumping in the morning. But Anzelmo-Steele wanted to be a team player, and she feared that asking for a mid-morning break would have burdened her colleagues.
“It’s not like other jobs, where your boss can just go, ‘Oh yeah, of course, just go pump when you need to pump,’ ” she said. “If you’re going to go pump, you need to find someone else to cover your class.”
She said she had hoped to breast-feed for a year, as the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends. She made it to seven months. Sometimes, she wishes she had asked for more time to pump; perhaps it could have made a difference. “You don’t want to sound like a whiner,” she said.