By Sherry Posnick-Goodwin
Three months after giving birth in 2012, Eileen Mantz returned from maternity leave. Expecting support from the school where she had taught for nine years, the algebra teacher asked for a private place on campus where she could pump her breasts twice daily and store milk to keep her baby healthy.
“Use a bathroom” inside her classroom at California High School was the answer — an option that Mantz found unsanitary, unacceptable and not in compliance with state law. Her administrator said there was no other place to accommodate her needs, so she used the staff lounge, covering herself with a blanket.
“It was awkward and extremely uncomfortable,” says the San Ramon Valley Educators Association member. “I crossed my fingers and hoped nobody would walk in.”
While Mantz was pumping in her classroom during lunchtime with the door locked and the window covered, the vice principal unlocked her door without knocking and entered with a male student. She ducked under her desk and hid. Scheduling break times that coincided with her pumping schedule was also problematic.
“I felt unsupported by my administration. Obviously, there should have been conversations among administrators about all the breast-feeding moms on campus and how to support them. I was trying to make sure my child was healthy because I was already having issues with my milk supply. I felt I had to make a choice between my school and my daughter.”
Such experiences are common throughout California’s schools, says CTA lawyer Michael Hersh, who assists members whose rights are violated. Many school districts fail to meet state and federal requirements that protect nursing mothers in the workplace. These laws mandate that employers provide a reasonable space, other than a toilet stall, for breast pumping, and offer break times when possible to accommodate the schedule of nursing mothers.
“Know your rights,” says Hersh, who advises moms to talk with their administrator and chapter representative before coming back to work. “And if your needs aren’t being met, contact your chapter president or primary contact staff person. Read your bargaining agreement, especially sections on health and safety and district policies. Keep in mind that state law offers more protection than federal law. Nursing moms have these rights and the power of CTA backing them. Involving the union in these issues provides additional protection from retaliatory actions.”
Fremont Unified District Teachers Association member Corliss Vance was horrified when she was assigned outdoor recess duty during the time she planned to express milk, even though she had discussed the need with her administrator. When she complained that being unable to pump caused sore breasts and leakage, she was told to find someone else to replace her on yard duty. When the backup person fell through, she had to find someone else. The situation exacerbated the stress of adjusting to new life as a working mother.
“Breast-feeding is natural and there’s nothing to be ashamed of, but I felt was being penalized,” says the third-grade teacher at Parkmont Elementary School, whose son is now 2.
Teresa Shimogawa was worried about providing milk for her “preemie” infant when she returned from maternity leave a few months after he was born. She wanted him to become healthy and strong like full-term babies. Administrators at Cypress High School asked her husband, also a teacher at the school, to cover her class during his prep period while she was pumping. Both belong to the Anaheim Secondary Teachers Association.
“We discussed the situation ahead of time, but the administrators had no clear policy. When I first asked where I could pump, they suggested the bathroom, and I said, ‘No, that’s not going to happen.’ So I went to my husband’s classroom while he covered mine.”
Her chapter president intervened, and a memo was issued on how the district will meet the needs of nursing moms in the future.
“When schools make it hard for teachers so they give up, that is kind of sad,” says Shimogawa, an AP government teacher, now pregnant with her second child. “Most people don’t know how to approach it. It’s best not to be shy.”
Rebecca Conklin was anything but shy before she returned from maternity leave in January 2011. She looked up state and federal law. She talked to other employees who returned to work while nursing their babies. They shared horror stories, like being walked in on by staff members or being offered a restroom.
Because district administrators blew off Conklin’s concerns, the English teacher at San Benito High School in Hollister met with her superintendent to discuss state laws. He was supportive from the beginning, but getting others on board was more challenging. Her school now has a room designated for nursing mothers on campus, which Conklin furnished with supplies and donations from staff.
“Parenting is the hardest job there is, followed by teaching,” says Conklin, San Benito Joint Union High School Teachers Association. “I’m still working with district administration to provide mothers with options and information before taking maternity leave. Districts need to be aware of the law and to support their staff by actually following it. I’m proud to help change this situation and make it better for nursing moms.”
For more information, CTA attorney Michael Hersh recommends visiting www.californiabreastfeeding.org and www.usbreastfeeding.org/employment/workplacesupport.aspx.