Story and graphic by Hannah Costelle
High school teacher Tiffany Calvert called the front office in tears and begged that someone be sent to cover her class. Calvert had just returned to work after giving birth to her son, and her breasts had become so painful she could not continue teaching until she pumped her breastmilk.
“I called the front desk, as any teacher would in an emergency situation,” she said. “The secretary knew I was crying, knew I was in pain.”
But no one was sent to help her.
“If any other teacher had called the office and said ‘I’m deathly sick, I’m puking my guts out,’ they would have sent someone immediately,” Calvert said. “But they just sort of brushed me off.”
New mothers in Kentucky currently have no guarantee of getting reasonable accommodations at work for pregnancy-related health issues. These accommodations include having a private, sanitary space to pump breast milk (not a bathroom), being able to take frequent breaks to express milk, or temporarily being transferred to less strenuous or hazardous positions.
These sorts of accommodations are made on a daily basis for sick or disabled employees, as when a diabetic gets time to check blood sugar and inject insulin. But pregnant and new mothers remain unprotected under Kentucky civil rights law.
“We have reasonable accommodations for smokers, but the law remains silent on pregnant mothers,” said Representative Joni Jenkins. “It’s kind of amazing to me.”
Jenkins is the main sponsor in the Kentucky House of Representatives for a new bill that seeks to correct this imbalance.
House Bill 18 would limit an employer’s ability to ignore or dismiss women like Calvert. The bill would add pregnant and new mothers as a protected class in Kentucky’s civil rights, requiring employers to make reasonable accommodations for pregnancy-related health issues just as they would for illnesses or disabilities.
Jenkins said making temporary accommodations for women oftentimes seems like an imposition or a hassle to employers. Add to that the misunderstandings and discomfort many male employers have about issues of pregnancy, and many women are faced with impossible decisions, as Calvert was after she had her first child in 2010.
Calvert, a 31-year-old from Ohio County, took her six to eight weeks’ maternity leave after giving birth and did everything else the experts recommended, pumping all throughout her leave so she’d have a stockpile in the fridge when she returned to work. She even sent the principal of her school an email letting him know someone else might need to cover her class on occasion while she pumped. She received no response.
“I had really no idea what I was doing,” Calvert said. “I just knew I was going to breastfeed my child or die. I was that headstrong.”
When Calvert returned to work, the school continued ignoring her requests for someone to cover her classes. She had to ask other teachers who were her close friends to watch her students for 20 minutes at a time while she pumped. It still wasn’t enough.
During the first year after giving birth, especially in the early months, a woman has to express milk periodically throughout the day either by pumping or direct feeding. If a woman works an eight-hour day, she has to take two or three breaks to express milk, according to the United States Breastfeeding Committee, a nonprofit organization that reports on the status of breastfeeding in the U.S. Missing a pumping session can lead to discomfort, leaking, inflammation, infection and, ultimately, breastfeeding cessation.
“Teachers barely have time to go to the bathroom,” Calvert said. She felt guilty taking so much time away from her colleagues, but didn’t see any other choice.
On the day she called the office in unbearable pain, none of these colleagues were available to help her. When her call to front desk proved fruitless, she was forced to put her students in with another class while she pumped, putting the other teacher far beyond capacity.
Calvert was outraged. She researched all the laws that applied to her situation, determined to find a way to make her school recognize her needs. She found nothing that directly applied to her as a salaried employee. She chose not to pursue the lawsuit she knew she had a case for because she needed the source of income.
“At that point I knew that I was not going to get any help,” she said. “I thought, ‘There’s got to be a better way.’ So I wanted to pave the way for other teachers who wanted to breastfeed.”
Calvert decided to try implementing a rule in her school’s health policies to do just that. Her rule would have required administrators to help find faculty members to watch students while breastfeeding teachers pumped. She reasoned that this measure would make squeamish male administrators more comfortable with the situation. She said she will never forget the day she went to the school superintendent with the proposal.
As she wrote in a Facebook post about the incident:
“After I told him how I thought I could solve the problem, he sat back in his chair…placed his glasses on his desk and said… ‘Well, Mrs. Calvert, I don’t really see a need in this, because…well, I guess teachers in the past have just trained their bodies.’”
She ended up quitting her teaching job.
Calvert also had to quit breastfeeding her first child after a year because her milk supply had dropped dramatically from not pumping enough at work. Her goal had been to breastfeed well beyond a year.
Medical experts recommend new mothers exclusively breastfeed for the first six months, then keep breastfeeding along with supplementary foods for at least the next six months. Continuing past the first year is also supported by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
For mothers who can do this, the health benefits are extraordinary. Mothers who breastfeed have a reduced risk of Type Two Diabetes, postpartum depression and cardiovascular disease, according to the U.S. Breastfeeding Committee report. Babies who are breastfed are also at a reduced risk of obesity, sudden infant death syndrome, asthma, childhood leukemia and ear, skin, stomach and respiratory infections.
Kristen Worthen, treasurer of the Lactation Improvement Network of Kentucky (LINK), understands these benefits firsthand.
“One of the reasons I chose to breastfeed for longer than a year is the longer a mom breastfeeds, the less chance there is for ovarian and breast cancer,” Worthen said.
LINK’s mission is to improve the status of breastfeeding in Kentucky, which will in turn improve the status of Kentuckians’ health. As of now, Kentucky ranks number 48 out of the 50 states for the number of women who breastfeed their children.
“In some situations, breastfeeding can be life-saving, especially with NICU infants,” Worthen said. “We need in some situations to make this a requirement. The kind of change that we need to help women breastfeed, we need this kind of legislation.”
But mother and child are not the only beneficiaries of making breastfeeding easier at work, according to the USBC report. Employers would also benefit. Protecting and acknowledging lactation rights at work can reduce employee turnover, lower recruitment and new employee training costs, cut down on absenteeism, boost morale and save money on healthcare.
Making accommodations for these mothers saves money. Yet there is no legislation in Kentucky to ensure that employers can take advantage of the benefits.
“There’s been a lot of movement in legislation to take away women’s rights,” said Dr. Kenneth Payne, an obstetrician in Louisville. One reason for this might be that it is mostly men in legislative positions, he said, and they just don’t understand what women are going through.
Payne said he has to be careful about writing doctor’s notes to women, because they can lose their employment and their insurance.
He once wrote a doctor’s note for a pregnant cashier advising that she sit on a stool while at work. Since her employer only offered positions that required standing all day, that woman lost her job.
This inadvertent discouragement toward working women contributes to Kentucky’s ranking of 45th out of the 50 states for the percentage of women in the workforce, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.
“In Kentucky, we have a low rate of female workers,” Jenkins said. “We’re missing out on an excellent resource. Anything we can do to encourage women to become more educated and trained is worth our time.”
House Bill 18, just introduced on the House floor this January, is not the first bill that has sought to protect women’s rights in the workplace. Last year, an identical bill, House Bill 218, passed the House 95-0 but failed in the Senate.
Now Calvert has another boy who just turned one. She said she’s going to make it to two years breastfeeding this time.
Calvert now works for the University of Kentucky as a county extension agent for family and consumer sciences. She said the hours are not as demanding, and she no longer has difficulty pumping milk for her son.
“If our society expected it more and it was more common, more people would do it,” Calvert said. “I hope that before I die, breastfeeding stations will be as common as bathrooms.”
Click on graphic to enlarge.