Opinion: Union protects mothers' right to breastfeed

Paula Herbart

“It’s not just about the mother, it’s about the health and well-being of her child.”

That is how Amy Urbanowski-Nowak, president of MEA’s Birch Run local association, explained her fight for one of her teacher members to get the time needed to express breast milk for her baby.

The superintendent of the Birch Run Area Schools, David Bush, had denied this teacher an extra 15 minute morning break to express breast milk for her newborn daughter. In an attempt to resolve the problem, fellow teachers offered to cover her class, but that was denied. The teacher was willing to take sick time or personal time, which was also denied. The union filed a grievance as well as a “demand to bargain” to reach a solution. All have been rejected by the superintendent.

The mother uses part of her planning time and lunch hour to express milk, but needs the additional 15 minutes each morning as well. Heidi Churchfield, childbirth education coordinator with Covenant HealthCare, said the frequency and amount of times a breastfeeding mother needs to pump varies from woman to woman. 

“What she needs to do is pump to protect her supply in order to provide nourishment for her baby. She should receive support to make that happen,” Churchfield said.

“What she needs to do is pump to protect her supply in order to provide nourishment for her baby. She should receive support to make that happen,” Churchfield said.

In researching how other school districts handle the issue, Urbanowski-Nowak found that many area district administrators have made accommodations to meet the needs of breastfeeding mothers. In fact, in one Arenac County school district, a building principal covered the classroom for the short time needed by the mother. “These accommodations by school districts are great and very helpful to the individual mother, but protections are clearly needed to help all mothers across the state.”

Both the Affordable Care Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act require employers to provide reasonable breaks for mothers who need to express milk. Unfortunately, those federal laws only apply to hourly workers, not salaried employees like teachers.  Although the Department of Labor does advise employers of salaried workers to follow the same law, some do not.

This is one of those times when people say: “There ought to be a law.”

Enter Rep. Rebekah Warren, D-Ann Arbor. Previously, as a member of the Michigan Senate, Warren sponsored the Breastfeeding Antidiscrimination Act, which enshrined the right of mothers to breastfeed their children in any place they are otherwise legally allowed to enter. Urbanowski-Nowak reached out to Rep. Warren for help. 

After some research, Warren found that Louisiana enacted a law that ensures that teachers receive the same protection under state law that the Affordable Care Act established for hourly workers. She is currently working to draft a similar bill she will be introducing in the Michigan House of Representatives. 

Warren cited tangible benefits to employers from her proposed legislation: 

“Helping mothers who wish to breastfeed their children continue to do so after they return to work is associated with fewer sick days, lower health care costs, and reduced turnover. It’s simple common sense to offer these accommodations to teachers in our state.”

Urbanowski-Nowak was thrilled: 

“I was taken aback by the swift and supportive position that Warren has taken.  She felt as I did that we need to correct this immediately. She made us feel empowered, and that was awesome.”

This advocacy is a reminder of why unions are as critical today to helping workers address issues as they have been for decades. MEA will continue the fight in Birch Run  — to help this mother and others — just  as we do for thousands of other educators serving Michigan students every day.

Paula Herbart is president of the Michigan Education Association.

Labor Voices

Labor Voices columns are written on a rotating basis by United Auto Workers President Gary Jones, Teamsters President James Hoffa, Michigan AFL-CIO President Ron Bieber and Michigan Education Association President Paula Herbart.