When New Hampshire mama Kate Abra Frederick asked her employer for a half-hour break to leave the office and breastfeed her baby, she assumed she was well within her legal right. Turns out, she was terribly wrong.
As the 42-year-old mama to baby Devon prepped to finish her maternity leave and return to work, she asked her employers at the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services for the extra fifteen minutes so that she would be able to feed Devon at daycare because he was struggling to take a bottle (something all breastfeeding and bottle feeding moms can relate to). Frederick felt that driving the two minutes to the daycare would be the best compromise: she could feed her son and return to work, worry-free — she even offered to make up the time she took off — but to no avail.
Her employer denied what Frederick calls a "reasonable request to accommodate her desire to breastfeed her child during the workday" because under the Affordable Care Act, employers are only required to make it possible for moms to pump their milk at work; nowhere in the law does say that they are required to let their employees breastfeed their kids during work hours. Ironically enough, the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services is responsible for promoting World Breastfeeding Week throughout the state.
The New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services Human Resources Department stands by their decision. Mark Bussiere, the director of human resources for the company, penned an e-mail to Frederick in response to her request for an extra 15-miutes. He said, "DHHS is in compliance with the law", which allows Frederick to "express milk" (which is used in legal terms and refers, most usually, to pumping as opposed feeding). Bussiere also noted that the specific request denied was her appeal to leave the office on an extended break, not the fact that she wanted to breastfeed her son.
However, Frederick said that leaving the office grounds was not uncommon. Employees would leave the grounds to walk, get coffee or to smoke cigarettes on their office breaks. When the Globe reached out to Bussiere, he said that he wasn't aware that employees regularly left the grounds on their breaks but that supervisors reserve the right to "speak to them in some manner" if that is the case. When pressed on how the company regulates and oversees their employees leaving the grounds, Bussiere said, "We don't have any security or ability to enforce this, it's just a matter of practice."
She told The Boston Globe that stalemate communications with her employer with regard to her breastfeeding rights felt like "a volcano was erupting and heading straight for me and I was locked in.” Only seeing two possible outcomes, she told the Globe, "If I went back to work and did what I needed to do for my health and [my son]’s health, I would have been insubordinating." A month after her email request, at the end of her maternity leave, Kate Abra Frederick was terminated from the company.
Now, the mama is fighting a legal battle with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Her case highlights that though breastfeeding is recommended for baby's (and mom's) health, setting aside the time — and being allowed to do so — is frustrating and disappointingly enough, often impossible.
But Frederick's case is also a special one. During her pregnancy, she developed gestational diabetes and was advised by her lactation consultant, midwife and nurses to breastfeed for her own health benefits (in addition to baby's). Breastfeeding and encouraging the mother-baby bonding also helped her to deal with her anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder, which put her at a heightened risk for postpartum depression. So the denial of a 30-break not only put her baby's health in jeopardy, but also her own.
The light at the end of the tunnel is this: despite being unemployed, Frederick is still breastfeeding Devon, now 14 months. She's awaiting her first mediation meeting between the EEOC and her former employer. She's joined a breastfeeding support group, where she and other nursing moms breastfeed outside the local North Conway hospital. And despite it all, she still remains optimistic, though not always empowered. She told the Globe, "When I filed at the EEOC, I did not feel empowered. I felt like I was... getting up for the first time, after having been beaten to the ground.”
Here's to having the courage to get back up.
Do you think Kate should have been fired for asking for an extra 15 minutes added to her break to breastfeed?