We middle- and upper-class parents can moan (rightfully) about the pathetic state of this country’s maternity leave policies, but I suspect nothing will change until the low-wage worker is brought into the mix. After all, those with greater means can pretty much make things work out. We have more choices, though it doesn’t always feel that way.
Workers who don’t earn much, however, suffer the brunt of our pathetic Family and Medical Leave Act (guarantees time off; does not guarantee pay). When you earn at or near minimum wage, is there really much of a choice than to pass the placenta and get back on the job?
This goes for breastfeeding, too. Women who don’t live near poverty can take time off, find a private room to pump, demand a private room to pump. Or get someone to bring the baby to the office to nurse.
Bringing baby to the workplace was the strategy of Maria Chavez, a cashier a Los Angeles taqueria, who wound up getting fired for nursing. On her break. In her car.
Oh, but there’s justice at the end of this story.
Maria had given birth prematurely and took a month of disability from her work at Acosta Tacos. When she returned, she was told she had been replaced and would not get her job back, which is also totally illegal but we’ll stay focused on the nursing at work. A few nights after being told she was let go, her boss needed her to fill in on two night shifts and she did.
But when owner Jesus Acosta found out that she had been nursing her baby on her breaks in her car, he fired her.
The California Department of Fair Employment and Housing investigated and found that Acosta Tacos had violated the Fair Employment and Housing Act’s (FEHA) prohibition against sex discrimination. The store was fined and Chavez was awarded $41k in damages.
Of course, $41k isn’t much, but it covered $20k in lost wages and $20k in emotional damages. Acosta Tacos was also ordered to pay $5k in court costs.
The landmark ruling concluded that breastfeeding is intrinsic to the female sex and, therefore, the owner’s actions constituted sex discrimination. Cool!
Since Hanna Rosin’s well-argued but ultimately frustrating piece in April’s Atlantic monthly, the breastfeeding discussion has centered on the question of whether breast really is breast. No it doesn’t save money (if it means leaving a well-paying job). No it doesn’t boost IQ scores (for those already educationally advantaged). No it doesn’t make your kids healthier (especially if your family is well fed and has access to decent food and doctors.) Rosin and others circled the wagons around women who felt pressured to do it, guilty if they couldn’t, defensive if they wouldn’t.
Fair enough. But women like me and the aforementioned pressured women — educated, financially comfortable, secure in society — in our efforts to make sure life’s working out just fine for us, tend to support women like us and kind of leave women like Chavez to just deal. Chavez should be lauded for what she did — calling attention to what happened to her and challenging her employer.
I’ve always wondered what the right-to-breastfeed statutes would look like for women like Chavez or factory workers or Starbucks baristas. Chavez shows it doesn’t have to be as complicated as a breast pump next to the espresso machine. Let’s hope Chavez’s case is a part of the circling of wagons around the lower-wage workers who want to nurse their babies and continue paying the rent. I’m sure there’s room in the circle for wagon’s like Rosin’s — and, thanks to Chavez, a refinement of the law — too.
UPDATE: Not in Ohio! Check out this mom who got fired for pumping on her breaks.