Many breast-feeding moms find pumping milk at work to be a hassle. But teachers can face special challenges because of inflexible schedules and crowded school buildings.
Federal law requires employers to provide hourly workers with time and space to pump breast milk on the job, but salaried workers — including teachers — are exempt. Some states have passed laws to extend protections to all women, or, in some cases, to women who are public employees.
In more than half the states, teachers have no legal right to pump on the job, according to state laws compiled by the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Here are the experiences of some teachers:
High school teacher Monica Howell’s daughter was born in September 2013. When Howell went back to work in March 2014, she asked her assistant principal for a daily break of about 20 minutes toward the end of first period.
“I thought I was entitled to this right,” Howell said. “She very plainly told me absolutely not. . . . I panicked. I cried. I didn’t know what to do.”
She went to her principal, who agreed to give her the time she requested. Her students worked on written assignments under the supervision of another adult while she pumped.
But Howell was shocked that Florida teachers didn’t have a legal right to pump breast milk, and she made it her mission to push for change.
“It’s basically at the discretion of the principal, and that’s not right,” she said. “If my principal had told me no, or if I had stopped pushing after my meeting with the assistant principal, I would have just stopped breast-feeding.
“In 2015, I would have had to make a choice between going back to work and continuing to provide my child with what I feel is the best source of nutrition.”
Howell said she believes that while some administrators were openly supportive of pumping, many teachers have pumped secretly, without asking for permission. “It was this underground system that was existing,” she said.
Howell and her union, the United Teachers of Dade, pushed for a provision to protect nursing mothers in their new contract, signed last fall. The language allows teachers the right to a nonbathroom private space and “reasonable” time to pump.
Daisy Gonzalez-Diego, spokeswoman for Miami-Dade County schools, said that before 2014, the school district had not been made aware that teachers were having trouble getting the time they needed to pump.
“I don’t think we created any kind of environment where they felt like they had to hide,” she said. “Once we found there was an issue, we addressed it right away. . . . If a teacher needs to go and do this, we make it work.”
Howell said the next teacher at her school to return from maternity leave was given the time she needed to pump. But she said most Florida teachers still don’t have the right to pump, and she continues to write letters to state and federal lawmakers, pushing them to adopt more comprehensive protections for nursing mothers.
High school science teacher Yasmin Ortiz had twin boys in October 2014. She returned to work in March, shortly after the new Miami teachers’ contract gave her the right to pump at work. She said she was thrilled to learn from her union representative that she would not need to stop breast-feeding, as she had feared.
“I was very blessed,” she said.
Ortiz was determined to breast-feed her boys, especially after they spent their first days in a neonatal intensive care unit. Their doctor told her that the most important thing she could do for her babies was go home and focus on pumping in order to establish a strong breast-milk supply.
Her doctor said that she was an important part of the health-care team, and that was all she needed to hear. “I was on a mission,” she said. “I was like, ‘I need to make sure my children have the immunity they need in order to be healthy.’ ”
Ortiz said her principal was initially resistant to her request for a 30-minute break each morning. But her assistant principal, a breast-feeding mother, understood why she wanted the time. They worked out a way for other adults to cover her classroom while students worked on assignments.
Ortiz said she knows another teacher who did not return to work last school year because she was concerned that she was not going to be able to breast-feed her child. “I believe a lot of teachers struggle with that decision: Do I go back to work and sacrifice not breast-feeding my child, or do I stay home and figure out how to be able to support my family in order to give my child that nutrition?”
“I hope that counties see the importance of having teachers in the classroom who are also able to breast-feed their children,” she said.
High school social studies teacher Shelly Steely returned to work eight weeks after her daughter was born in September 2014.
California law requires employers to provide pumping breaks for nursing women, but Steely said that in many schools, the legal requirement is not practical — even when administrators are supportive, as she says hers were.
“There’s not enough coverage at any school site to leave your classroom, so we’re kind of expected to pump whenever you don’t have students,” she said. “What we’re allowed and what actually happens is out of line. . . . It’s unrealistic to have someone teaching half of one of my classes.”
Steely said she pumped during her planning period and during lunchtime. There was never quite enough time to comfortably get everything done. “I’d be chasing students out the door, running to the bathroom, microwaving a soup for two minutes, running back to my classroom. Even still, there were plenty of days when I’d be screwing the caps on the bottles” as students walked into class, she said.
She locked her door, closed her blinds and put a do-not-disturb sign on the door. But sometimes the door didn’t lock properly, or a custodian had a master key and ignored the sign. “I got walked in on quite a few times,” she said.
Steely said she was lucky, because she didn’t have to pump as frequently or for as long a duration, as other women she knows. “Most of the people I know have to pump three times during the day to keep up their supply, and there’s no way I would be able to do that with my schedule,” she said.
Sarah Anzelmo-Steele worked for the Virginia Education Association when her first child was born. It was an office job, and she had the flexibility and the space to pump when she needed to.
By the time she was pregnant with her second child, she was teaching in a middle school. Nervous about how she would pump at school, she testified before state lawmakers in favor of a bill that would require schools to provide nursing teachers with a nonbathroom space and reasonable breaks.
The bill, sponsored by Del. Jennifer McClellan (D-Richmond) — who was the first Virginia delegate to become pregnant and give birth while in office — passed.
“I had to pump during session, and I had to pump at work and remembering how challenging that was as a delegate, when I had a little more control over my schedule — I can certainly relate,” McClellan said. “I can imagine how difficult it would be teach someone’s child when you’re worried about your own.”
Anzelmo-Steele was grateful for the new law when she went back to work last fall. And her principal, a father of four, was supportive. Even so, she struggled at first to find an appropriate place in her crowded school building.
“Literally every nook and cranny is used for teaching,” she said.
Several weeks into the year, the art teacher — who was pregnant — offered the art supply closet, and that became her spot. 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.
Her principal, Jonathan Morris, said he would have found a way to accommodate another pumping session for Anzelmo-Steele. But he said he understands why it was difficult for her to ask. “I think that’s one of the reasons it’s even more important to solidify those procedures through policy and make sure that the policy is clear,” he said.
Morris said that in seven years in Virginia’s Henrico County, principals were not given guidance as to how to handle the needs of breast-feeding teachers. Complying with Virginia’s new law regarding nursing teachers has not been discussed during training sessions in Richmond, either, he said.
Richmond’s school board adopted a policy in June 2014 requiring schools to provide nursing teachers with time to pump and a private space other than a bathroom. But it’s not clear how many schools are complying with that rule.
In a statement, Richmond schools officials said they have “faithfully supported the letter and spirit of this policy over the course of the past year.”
“In the upcoming school year, Executive Directors will work closely with school leaders to verify continued compliance with the policy,” school officials said. “Since this policy went into effect, there have been no incident reports or complaints forwarded to the RPS Human Resources department by school staff about designated locations or accommodations made at any school building.”