Returning to work after maternity leave tends to be hard for any parent. Unlike many countries in the world, partially paid parental leave is a mere few weeks at best, and company policies are at the whim of a business owner. Vacations and short term disability can sometimes be brought in as a supplement, but often new mothers find that the only real benefit to U.S. maternity leave policies is that it is supposed to make it harder for a company to let an employee go simply because she gave birth or took leave.
Harder, but not impossible.
When Angela Ames returned to work after giving birth, she had already been plagued by supervisors who “suggested [she] might have to cut her maternity leave short because the office was ‘too busy,’ derided her for personal decisions about her pregnancy, and warned that taking additional unpaid leave after medical complications with her pregnancy might raise ‘red flags’ down the road,” according to Think Progress.
Now, after attempting to get access to a room to pump milk for her baby, she was informed that she would have to wait three days for the paperwork to be processed so she could be allowed in. Ames argued that she couldn’t wait three days, that it was taking too long for a “wellness room” to vacate, and that she worried that pumping in such a room could expose her milk to germs.
In response, her department head told her, “You know, I think it’s best that you go home to be with your babies,” and gave her a pen and paper in order to write a resignation letter, according to Ames’s legal complaint.
A federal appeals panel has rejected Ames’ discrimination suit, saying that Ames did not allow the company enough opportunity to make accommodations for her, and stating that the workplace did not force her into quitting her job. How telling someone to go home to her babies and refusing her a lactation room isn’t creating a hostile work environment is unfathomable.
As any person who has ever given birth knows, lactation is more than just feeding a child; it’s a physical issue that, without release, not only harms a person’s milk supply in the long run, but causes extreme pain due to engorgement. It also is a bodily function that a person has very little physical control over. A variety of factors can instigate let down, making a breast begin leaking milk, including the sound of crying, a picture of a baby or even thinking about your child. Leaking and engorged breasts aren’t just physically uncomfortable, but can lead to clogged ducts and infections, and can be humiliating when clothing becomes soaked.
The three GOP nominated male judges who weighed in on the case may not have seen an issue, but more and more states are. That’s why so many cities and states are passing legislation to ensure pregnant people and new mothers are protected by this type of discrimination. Although the language of the Pregnant Worker Fairness Act focuses predominately on accommodations and protections for those who are pregnant, it also provides protections for those who have just given birth, forcing companies to make reasonable accommodations surrounding lactation rooms and lighter duty jobs after complicated pregnancies, without putting their employment in jeopardy.
The United States has huge, huge strides to make in order to come anywhere close to the support for new mothers returning to work that are taken for granted in countries like Canada or Sweden. At the very least, however, we should be able to return to work without risking either the health of our children, our own health or our jobs. Pregnant Worker Fairness Acts are a small but meaningful step in the right direction, and hopefully more states will step up to the plate.
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