On high school teacher Monica Howell’s first day back to work from maternity leave, she went to her assistant principal with a request: a private place and 20 minutes a day to pump breast milk for her newborn.
Her boss’s response?
“Unfortunately, we cannot accommodate breastfeeding mothers,” Howell recalled.
“I was devastated,” she said.
That launched the new mom on a journey through school board policy and federal law only to come to an unhappy conclusion: Miami-Dade teachers — 80 percent of whom are women — have no right to express milk while at work.
The Miami-Dade’s teachers union recently asked the school board to pass a policy giving all district employees the right to pump on the job.
“This is a female workforce. We care about other people’s children, so we should be able, or afforded the time, to take care of our own,” said Karla Hernández-Mats, teachers union treasurer and currently a breastfeeding mom.
The school board passed an item “to encourage principals” to accommodate nursing moms but says the issue has to be taken up during collective bargaining. No session has been scheduled to negotiate it.
Howell went back to work thinking she was protected by the Affordable Care Act. A provision in the law requires large employers to accommodate nursing mothers. Companies with more than 50 employees are supposed to allow uncompensated breaks and a private place, other than a bathroom, for women who need to express milk.
But there’s a caveat: The protections apply only to hourly workers, exempting an estimated 12 million salaried employees — including teachers.
Studies show breastfed babies are healthier and even grow up to be smarter than infants who are formula-fed. Moms who breastfeed have reduced rates of ovarian and breast cancer.
The U.S. Department of Labor also says there’s a business case to be made for accommodating lactating moms who go back to work. Healthcare costs and absenteeism are lower because moms and babies spend less time at the doctor. Insurance company Cigna reports $240,000 in annual savings among women who breastfed.
For many professional women, it’s easy to work a short break into their schedules or to just close the office door and pump. Teachers, on the other hand, can’t leave their classrooms even to use the bathroom without first finding someone to watch over their students.
“If I’m an administrator, I would have a door I can close. If I were a cafeteria worker, I would be protected because it’s hourly,” Howell said. “Teaching is challenging. People often compare it to show business because once the bell rings, you have to be on.”
The “leading issue” keeping moms from nursing after returning to work is having the time to pump, said Dr. Lourdes Forster, associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Miami.
When high school teacher La-Shanda West went back to work after having her son, nursing just wasn’t an option. West had a full load of classes, which meant no breaks except for a 30-minute lunch.
“It was impossible,” she said.
West is pregnant again and wants to try extracting milk for her baby after maternity leave. But West hasn’t been encouraged by what she’s heard from other teachers who tried to pump after going back to work.
“All the teachers I know in the past two years stopped because it was stressful,” she said.
Along with finding time to extract milk, teachers may also have difficulty finding a private place. Most schools don’t designate a room specifically for pumping.
“The concern with establishing a set policy is that it may imply, or it could imply, that there has to be a designated space in a building … not every building is the same,” said Jorge Garcia, the district’s assistant superintendent of labor relations. “Allowing principals at the school site to make an accommodation and work it out with the individual teacher is the best suited for both.”
Howell says she was lucky. With the help of other teachers — and the tacit support of administrators — she was able to keep pumping. She weaned her daughter a few months after returning to work.
But teachers’ experiences vary based on the willingness of their administrators and fellow teachers to pitch in.
“This is the problem with not having a policy, is that now it depends what school you work at,” Howell said. “It shouldn’t matter where I’m working. I should be able to do this, and there should be a system in place for it.”
District officials say most moms are able to work something out with their administrators. Plus, by the time teachers go back to work, many are already weaning their babies. In Miami-Dade schools, the average time off for maternity leave is seven months.
Gloria Arazoza, an administrative director in the district’s office of labor relations, said she can recall only one instance in which the district had to get involved to work out a request from a mother who wanted to pump on the job.
“It’s not something that has been a big issue. It’s usually something that, if it does happen, we can accommodate just as we would accommodate for any other special need,” she said.
But district officials simply may not be aware how often teachers are pumping on the job. Teachers in Dade admit to pumping without asking for permission out of fear they’ll be told no. They pump in closets, hot cars and anywhere else they can find a private spot.
Her union duties have taken Hernández-Mats out of the classroom. But when her first child was born, she relied on the next-door teacher’s paraprofessional to relieve her while she pumped.
“I just took care of it on my own,” she said. “I just knew that that was something I wanted to do and that was something I was going to make work regardless.”
Advocacy groups such as the Florida Breastfeeding Coalition are rallying support for a change in federal law to protect all moms, regardless of occupation. Bills to do that have been introduced in Congress and referred to committee.
“This is not a Miami-Dade problem. This is a nationwide problem,” said coalition president Pat Lindsey.
Miami Herald news partner WLRN reporter Nadege Green contributed to this article.
Follow @Cveiga on Twitter.