Breastfeeding at Work

Last Updated Oct 24, 2011 7:20 AM EDT

Dear Evil HR Lady,

I need advice. Last year I gave birth to a beautiful baby boy. I went back to work Feb. 1st of this year as a part time employee. I am nursing and pump once daily at work. Prior to leaving on maternity leave I informed my employer that I would be returning in Feb as a part time employee and would need a place to pump. The place was provided and a time was agreed by both of us.

Lately, the hours that are busiest have changed and we have lost a few employees-are now understaffed. My employer wants me to change my hours to coincide with the busiest time of day. Unfortunately, I have no child care for those hours and she has given me 2 weeks to find someone to care for him. If I cannot work those hours then she wants me to resign.

On top of changing my hours she is just now deciding to take my health benefits away (announced that she was only doing me a courtesy to let me keep it up to this point) and she is not allowing me to pump anymore after my hours change since it would seriously disrupt the operations of the employer, which is a way of not allowing me to pump through California Labor Code 1032.

She has publicly informed me of the issues she has with me (in front of coworkers) and even stated that I was taking advantage of her nice actions. She has issues with me pumping and still needing time in the work day to eat ( Eating while working had never been an issue at our office-she prefers this so no one clocks out). Until I change my hours I have agreed to clock out for pumping sessions and not eat at all for the 5 hours I work Mon-Fri.

She has been asking me to fix other issues at work and I am feeling harassed. She has sent me e-mails, texts, & spoken to me in person about different issues. I feel like I am walking on egg shells everyday and am just overall uncomfortable with her around. Unfortunately, we are a small medical practice (with only 5 employees total) and she is the only doctor/owner, so I deal with her daily. She has a history of verbally attacking employees and constantly breathing down their backs (Ive seen it happen to others & have been a victim before). I don't know what to do except try my best to work with her requests but I want to know my rights so I can stand up to her with concrete facts. Help please.

Congratulations on the new baby. I'm guessing since you went back to work in February, that the baby was born in November or December, which means he's almost a year old.

I suspect that your boss figured that the accommodations (part time, pumping time, and schedule that's convenient for you) were going to be temporary. Only 22 percent of mothers were still breastfeeding at one year. Most mothers (56 percent) quit by the time their babies were 6 months. When she agreed to all these things she undoubtedly thought by April or June at the latest you'd be done with all this pumping and be ready to go back to work full time. Because it was so obvious in her mind she didn't even consider the possibility that you would want to do something different.

But, you did and other employees have quit and so she's stressed out. You know from past experience that she is aggressive and downright mean when she wants to be. I suspect that since you were previously her victim, then weren't, and now are back on the victim list, that it's highly correlated with the amount of stress she's under. Of course if she's lost employees she needs her part time employee to be there during the busiest time of day. I suspect she'd rather have a full time employee in the position so even though she's asking you to do something hard for you, she still feels like she's being super nice to you.

You, on the other hand, probably had completely different expectations going into this. You assumed that part time was going to be the new normal and that you would breastfeed for x number of months. I'm guessing there was never a clear conversation between you and your boss because you both felt that this was kind of a "duh" situation--of course it will be what I'm thinking, how could it be any other?

But, assumptions usually end poorly, as you are finding out.

So first, your rights. I am not going to guess at California Labor Law, and I will assume (since you stated this) that the company is in compliance with said law. Federal law gives specific rights to nursing mothers up to 12 months (which you're rapidly approaching), but even these don't apply to companies with less than 50 employees, if it would cause a hardship. So, as far as legal rights, there may not be any more with regards to breastfeeding. (And based on your statement that you "clock out" I'm assuming that you're non-exempt. Exempt employees don't have any rights to pump or nurse in the workplace under FLSA, but may under your state laws.)

Now before I get jumped on by breast-feeding advocates, let me state that I have two children who were both breastfed until they were old enough to start asking for it directly, which kind of creeped me out. (18 and 17 months, for the record.) I'm a big fan of breastfeeding. (It's free, and you get to eat extra calories! Yeah, more food for me!) And let me also state that every woman has a slightly different experience. My first reaction, upon reading your question was, "She's only working a 5 hour shift. Why on earth does she need to pump during that time? By the time my babies were that old, I didn't pump when I went into the office." But, then I realized that my babies are not necessarily like your baby. So, I almost made a dreaded assumption again.

What to do now? Since I don't think there are any concrete facts that are going to sway your boss, I suggest you attack this from her view point. Understand where she's coming from and find a solution from that angle. If you are intending to continue pumping for another year, be up front about that. If you are planning to wean on his first birthday, be up front about that as well. I fully realize that you may not have any idea when you'll actually give it up. (And your baby may have ideas of his own, as well. Darn independent little spirits.)

You may not be able to come up with a solution that is beneficial to both of you. If that's the case then you get to decide if you want to stay at this office or leave. I can't make that decision for you, as I'm not privy to all the other factors that go into a decision like this. Depending on how horrible your boss is right now, it may not be worth salvaging the job and you should start looking elsewhere immediately. If this is part of her stressed out cycle and you know it will calm down when she replaces the employees who left, it may be a grit your teeth type of situation.

And sometimes we do have to do that. Sometimes it really stinks. Hopefully your boss will be kinder and things will work out. But if not, then you get to decide if the pain of working there is worth the paycheck.

For further reading:

Photo by EraPhernalia Vintage...(playin' hook-y ;o), Flickr cc 2.0

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