No One Tells Mamma to “Just Go Home!”

By Galen Sherwin, ACLU Women’s Rights Project

Imagine you have just returned from maternity leave, still nursing your baby, and you find that your workplace has no place available for you to pump breast milk.  After trying for several hours to find a place, you ask for help from your department head, who says “You know, I think it’s best that you just go home to be with your babies.”  She hands you a pen and paper, advises you to resign, and even dictates what you should write down as your letter of resignation.

This is exactly what Angela Ames, a Loss Mitigation Representative at Nationwide Insurance, alleges happened to her when she returned to work eight-weeks after having her second child.

To begin with, as soon as she got to work, she found another employee’s belongings at her workspace—not exactly a warm welcome.   When she informed her department head that she needed a place to pump, she said that was “not her job,” and sent her to the company nurse. The nurse told her that she couldn’t use the company’s lactation room because the company needed three days to processes her “paperwork”—a policy no one had shared with her prior to her return.  The nurse advised her that she could try to pump in a room that was frequently used by sick employees with no lock on the door that was currently in use—she should check back in 15-20 minutes.

While she was waiting, she met with her supervisor, who told her that she would have to make up all the work from her entire leave within two weeks’ time, which would require working significant overtime, or face discipline.  She finally returned, in increasing panic and pain from the pressure in her breasts, to her department head to see if there was anything she could do to help her find a place to pump.  That’s when the department head made the “just go home to be with your babies” comment and dictated her letter of resignation.

Were you in Angela’s situation, you might reasonably assume that you were not welcome back at work, and that you were essentially being fired, or at least forced off the job—as Angela did.  Unfortunately, a federal appeals court in the Eighth Circuitdisagreed, holding that she should have complained to HR before trying to take her employer to court.  But because many women don’t know their rights related to pregnancy, leave, or breast pumping, they might not be aware their rights were being violated in the first place.

Sadly, treatment like Angela faced is far too common for pregnant workers and new moms attempting to negotiate a return to paid work.  Our civil rights laws were designed to protect women against this type of sex stereotype—that women will be less committed to their work after having children, or that they should really just “go home to be with [their] babies.”  Until our workplaces incorporate conditions for workers to carry healthy pregnancies, recover from childbirth, care for their families, or continue nursing, women won’t have an equal chance at success.

We can’t accept being told to “just go home.”  We need to keep fighting—by educating ourselves and each other about our rights, continuing to press our cases in court, and supporting legislative initiatives like the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, or similar statutes at the state level.

If you have experienced discrimination at work like Angela did, tell us your story.

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